Los Angeles

Stop Sign Cameras Are Costing Some Park Visitors Plenty

The park agency says the cameras are about safety, but critics disagree

Irene Hernandez is permanently disabled. Her mother, for whom she cares full-time, is struggling with dementia.

Despite their health challenges, Hernandez says there's one activity that helps both of them manage their ailments.

"I look for different places to go hiking. It's our physical therapy," said Hernandez. "It's how I deal with my pain. It gives my mom the best joy to be out in nature."

But Hernandez says she's now afraid to visit some of Southern California's most popular park areas. That's because she received a ticket for running a stop sign at Franklin Canyon Park and didn't even know it until it arrived weeks later in the mail. 

"Apparently they recorded me blowing through a stop sign," Hernandez said. "There was nobody there. It was really quiet. Kind of a lonely location."

She wasn't ticketed by a law enforcement officer or a park ranger. In fact, no one who works for the park saw her roll through the sign. But the alleged violation was captured in photos and on video by an automatic camera mounted on the hillside near the stop sign.

"I was shocked that they would ticket me $100 for that kind of thing and that they would even be recording it because I didn't even think they were allowed to do that in California anymore," explained Hernandez.

For most of California, stop sign ticket cameras are not allowed under the state's vehicle code. But a little known agency called the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority or MRCA has its own set of rules. They use cameras to enforce some of the stop signs on their land; 73,000 acres of parks, trails and open space that includes portions of the Santa Monica Mountains.

"These are areas where we have high foot traffic," Supervising Park Ranger Jewel Johnson.

Currently, the MRCA operates 7 stop sign ticket cameras. Three of the cameras are in Franklin Canyon Park, one is at the top of Reseda Boulevard near the entrance to Marvin Braude Mulholland Gateway Park, one is at the top of Topanga Canyon at a scenic overlook, and two are in Temescal Gateway Park.

"These are not city streets. You can't walk in the middle of Ventura Boulevard, but you can walk in the middle of our access roads because they are part of the trail system," said Johnson.

Johnson says the cameras are necessary because the MRCA's park rangers have a lot of responsibilities outside of traffic enforcement including fire protection. And she says the cameras serve as her eyes when she can't physically monitor the locations.

"This is a technology that helps us in maintaining the safety of the park," said Johnson.

But critics of the program disagree. They say the stop signs, let alone the cameras, are unnecessary because of their locations.

"They can see in all directions, there's no reason to come to a complete stop, they can certainly yield if somebody's there," said Jay Beeber, Executive Director of Safer Streets LA.

Beeber has been studying traffic and parking issues in Los Angeles for years and has testified in front of the state legislature about the issue. He believes the signs should be taken down or replaced with yield signs.

"Most of the stop signs that you'll see that are photo enforced from an engineering standpoint are not really necessary," said Beeber.

That's not just his opinion. It's also the opinion of a retired traffic engineer with 50 years of experience who Beeber asked to review some of the stop signs.

In an email, the engineer wrote, "it appears to be that, ...the three scenarios depicted in your memo violate the fundamental concepts of the MUTCD (Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices) and of sound Traffic Engineering [sic] in general."

"They place them in places where no stop sign is needed," said Beeber. "There's no evidence that the fact that somebody slowly rolled through a stop sign and their wheels didn't quite stop turning caused any danger to anybody."

Beeber points to the stop sign and camera on top of Reseda Boulevard as an example. The stop sign isn't at an intersection and the cross walk doesn't appear to go anywhere. Yet more than 2-thousand people got tickets at this stop sign in 2016.

Overall, according to data obtained by the NBC4 I-Team, more than 97,000 drivers have received a stop sign ticket from the MRCA since 2013. The program has generated almost $7 million dollars for the agency since 2012. The agency says most of the money goes to maintaining the park system.

Beeber says the signs and the cameras are not about safety but about making money for the MRCA and keeping people from using the roads to cut across town.

"The MRCA has never been able to show even one time that there's been any collisions, any accidents, any injuries, anything whatsoever, at any of these stop sign locations," said Beeber.

The NBC4 I-Team asked the MRCA for examples of accidents and incidents at the stop sign camera locations. They provided us with one incident report. The accident involved a car that hit a curb and went down the hillside at the top of Topanga Canyon Boulevard.

According to the incident report, the driver "was found to be at fault in this collision by making an unsafe turning movement, which caused him to veer of the roadway..." The report does not cite any evidence of him running or ignoring a posted stop sign.

Ranger Johnson says the program is about preventing problems before they occur.

"I don't think the public wants us to take action after something tragic happens," said Johnson.

Hernandez says she never put anyone at risk when she drove slowly through Franklin Canyon. She decided not to pay the fine which unlike normal traffic tickets doesn't appear on your driving record. And tickets are issued to the owner of the car, not necessarily the person who was driving the vehicle at the time. MRCA says it is similar to a parking ticket.

"They are actually a ticket for disobeying park rules," explained Beeber.

That means the MRCA can't harm your driving record but they can send you to collections and even small claims court if you fail to pay the fine. They can also add late fees. That's what they did to Hernandez. The agency got a court judgment against her including late fees of several hundred dollars.

"I thought, oh my god, I cannot believe it's escalating to this point that they're actually taking me to small claims court," said Hernandez.

The MRCA says there is a process for challenging the tickets. You can go to a hearing conducted by an MRCA employee and pay to have your appeal heard in court.

"It's not fair, it's not right. I am holding fast to my principals and just resisting," said Hernandez.

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