FREMONT (KPIX 5) -- Outside the Hall of Justice in Fremont, they line up before dawn, waiting to get into traffic court, many hoping to get a break on an expensive red-light camera ticket.
"I am definitely not looking forward to paying the $500," said Rohan Kapuria, who got a ticket last October. "The yellows turned so fast to red that I didn't have a chance to react," he said.
That happened at Mowry and Farwell, a Fremont intersection that caught the attention of red-light activist Jim Lissner. "Sometimes you see something going on," he said.
Lissner has made it a hobby to monitor red light cameras across the state. Recently he noticed a pattern of citations at Mowry and Farwell that he considered suspicious. It all started when a new state law required cities to lengthen their yellow lights for safety reasons, based on the actual speed of traffic rather than the posted speed.
On August 1, 2015 when the new law took effect, ticketing at the intersection dropped dramatically, to an average of 54 red light runners a month. Then, suddenly, the camera started churning out an average of 280 tickets per month from February through October 2016. Just as suddenly, the ticket count took a nose dive back down in November.
Lissner noticed a similar pattern up the street at Mowry and Blacow, where an average of 17 tickets per month spiked to an average of 177, then also dropped back down. "That raised alarm bells. Why did that happen?" Lissner wondered.
Sifting through documents he routinely requests from cities, Lissner discovered two sets of timing charts for the two intersections which he considers suspicious.
One shows the yellow lights timed at 4.7 seconds. There's a line across the chart and the words "superceded." The second set of charts shows the yellows timed at 4.0, with a handwritten note that the change was made on February 1, 2016. That happens to be the very same date the cameras started cranking out red light citations in record numbers. "They shortened the yellows. That is the smoking gun," said Lissner.
Shorter yellows can lead to more red light tickets and potentially more revenue for the city. But, if they did shorten them here, there's no sign of it now. We came here with a stop watch: both yellows are 4.7 seconds long.
So what happened?
"We had student interns that were helping us update the records," said Hans Larsen, Fremont's public works director. "Unfortunately, in a few cases, some of the information that was on those pieces of paper wasn't accurate and doesn't represent what was actually done out in the field at the traffic signals," said Larsen.
He says even though it may look that way, the yellow lights were never actually shortened. People will hear that and say 'oh really? Blame it on the intern?' But Larsen insists: "What we are talking about is what is written on a piece of paper. I mean the issue here is, is the yellow timing out at the intersection in compliance with state laws? The answer is yes."
As for the spike in tickets over nine months last year Larsen says it's partly more traffic but also what he describes as the "rebound effect."
"People will get used to 'OK, well there's more yellow time now, I will use as much of it as I can,'" he said.
Back at the courthouse, Rohan Kapuria wasn't too hopeful the judge would give him a break when we checked in with him.
"If worse comes to worse I can do community service," he said.
But who knows? After this report things could change.
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