My red light ticket story

Where I recount my true experience with a red light ticket and the San Mateo Country traffic court system...

The Infraction

About a month ago I received in the mail a notice of a red light violation. The notice included four photographs: one of me from the front, one of my license plate and two from the back showing the traffic light (already in Red) and my car about to enter the intersection and then half way across the intersection. The pictures  contain timing information highly relevant to the case. The first picture:

  • Location: El Camino Real and Glenwood Ave., Menlo Park, CA

  • Date: Friday, 13th March 2009

  • Speed Limit: 35MPH

  • Lane: 2

  • Vehicle Speed: 36MPH

  • Elapsed time: 0.00

The next picture shows my car half way into the intersection, and the data shows:

  • RED: 0.86

  • Elapsed Time: 0.75

The notice does not explain any of this, but we can interpret it as follows: when the light went red I had not entered the intersection yet. This is clearly shown in picture 1. The second picture shows that 0.75 seconds after the light went red I'm crossing the intersection. The notice is hard to read and it's not clear what you should do next. With some work you can find a line telling you that this is just the photographic evidence and that you'll receive a citation from the court. There's also a link to a site with a video of the incident. The video is fun, but tiny and it's hard to see exactly when the light goes red and when I start crossing the intersection.

I did not even remember missing a red light, but it obviously happened. I would never run a red light on purpose, so I was mildly annoyed. Time to wait for the citation from the court, pay the fine online and be done with this sad episode...

Whoa!!! How much was that?!

The citation did show up in the mail, a few weeks later. Again, a rather confusing piece of paper that needed some parsing. It took me a while to find out the fine to be paid. They don't call it a fine, they call it BAIL, in ALL CAPS, like much of the content. The bail amount: $436! To that, you need to add a $57 non refundable administration fee for the privilege of doing traffic school. The total is close to five hundred dollars, for a split second infraction. We're not talking here about a red light with cars crossing the intersection and you close your eyes and plunge ahead recklessly. This was just a split second decision, with the car already at 35 MPH, where you need to decide to slam on the brakes or keep going hoping the yellow is long enough... That split second mistake costs close to $500 dollars. Amazing, and rather unfair, I thought.

I know these photo enforced intersections need to be clearly labeled as such. In this case there's a sign half a block before the intersection with a picture of traffic light and the words "photo enforced". I wished it had said something more like

WARNING: minimum red light fine: $500!

That would have caught my attention much more than the friendly traffic light icon and would have constituted fairer warning, in my opinion. Remember #4, crunchy frog? Warning: lark's vomit!!!

So, what were the options then? Fighting the ticket seemed pointless as the evidence clearly shows I run the red light. But still, it felt wrong to me to pay this outrageous amount just like that. The citation certainly is eager to get me to pay the amount and be done: you can tear the bottom section and send payment or "you may pay your citation online at". Another option mentioned in the citation is to go to court. I decided to at least go to court and see if I could get some sort of discount on the fine...

Going to court

The process is pretty simple: you go to the traffic section of the Superior Court Southern Branch of San Mateo County, in downtown Redwood City. You need to be there on Monday from 12:30 to 1:30PM or Tuesday through Thursday from 7:30 to 8:30AM. The office opens at 7:30 and there's a small line outside before the doors open. You line up, get to the counter and ask to see the Judge. I first asked whether there was any point in seeing the Judge at all since my infraction is automated and well documented. The lady behind the counter said that I could certainly get a discount if I saw the Judge. I signed up. The court opens at 8:30 and the Judge will see people in the order in which they signed up in the previous hour.

I had time to prepare a short speech where I was planning to tell the Judge how I would never run a red light on purpose, that I'm a law abiding citizen and that I would like some sort of leniency from the court. I repeated the little speech in my head a bunch of times to get ready, hoping I would not be too nervous when the time came to deliver it. In the end there was no need for the speech at all.

At around 8:40AM the doors to the Court opened and we all filed in. They called the first 10 people or so to the front row and the Judge entered. He gave a short speech explaining how things were going to work. He was going to call each person one by one forward. He would then ask for a plea of "inocent" or "guilty" ("no contest" being a special case of "guilty"). If you plead "guilty" you would automatically get a discount and very possibly be eligible for traffic school. If you plead "inocent" a trial date would be set up for a time within the next few months. You needed to be aware that you could loose your trial and then there would be no discount. He also mentioned that people could get payment extensions or even work out a payment installment plan with the court (there was an extra fee to set up the installment plan).

So, I filed away my speech. When my time came the Judge asked if I was me, then asked me if I was there for a red light violation and whether I was willing to take a discount and traffic school. When I replied that I would, he asked when I could pay my fine. I said that I could pay right then and there and he sent me to window 7 to pay the fine. That was all. The discount was one hundred dollars.

I paid the fine with my credit card and left the courthouse. It's interesting that the immediate payment options do not offer a discount at all and also that I could not find any information anywhere about the process and what to expect. Hence this post.

Traffic School, but which one?

The final step in this oddyssey is doing traffic school. But which one? The court gives you a handout with the list of online traffic schools you can attend, about 80 of them with urls like:,,,, etc. I do not want to choose one at random and have not found a site with user reviews yet. I'll figure this out in the next couple of weeks and document it here.


  1. Thank you for the information. I was wondering what happened after a red light camera ticket.

  2. Ditto on the thank you above, I did the exact same thing you did at Glenwood Ave ran the stop light in the same situation late at night no other cars--just received the bail amount in the mail and almost had a heart attack. After reading your blog post I will def--go to court this is my 1st violation in over 15 years...ugh. Thanks again.


  3. Thanks for the info. I just recvd a $446 red light ticket as well and almost threw up. I was in San Mateo on biz from my home state of NC. Naturally, I can't return solely to see the judge so I just have to pay the fine and make this our family Xmas gift to me! Needless to say, this leaves a very sour taste in my mouth after my expensive trip to Cali. I have to say I will not travel back there again for biz or pleasure because of this outrageous fine, along with all the other taxes and fees around San Fran.

  4. I am continually amazed at how easy people just get in line like sheep without any sense of outrage when it comes to these things. People going thru red lights is dangerous and wrong. HOWEVER, cities that see these these situations as revenue generators instead of a safety issue are equally at fault. The number of seconds in the timing of the yellow light signal is purposely dialed down to the minimum stopping distance as set by Caltrans. WHY? Because if they moved up to say 5 seconds instead of 3 seconds, 99% of us could, and would, stop in time. BUT then they wouldn't get the REVENUE. So instead, knowledgeable sheep WILL SLAM ON THE BRAKES AT THE FIRST SIGN OF YELLOW TO AVOID THE $500+ "fine". And rear-end accidents will result. Another great benefit of government looking out for us...

  5. I remember seeing that the minimum delay had to be 4 seconds and I checked the video of my "incident" to verify that the yellow light was on for at least that amount of time... and it was. So, I don't think this is an instance of trying to force people to fall into the trap. Still, the outrageous fine amount results in the knee-jerk reaction you're describing. I certainly slam on the breaks whenever I see yellow on those intersections.

  6. How nice that it was 4 seconds at your intersection. It's 3 and change (like 3.1, 3.2, 3.4) at the ones in San Mateo. The minimums have been purposely lowered since the mid-80s, just as red-light cameras began rolling out. Under the 1976 traffic engineering guidelines the big intersections in San Mateo would have to have 5 seconds of yellow. For a turn of any kind, the minimum is 3 seconds, regardless of intersection size, speed limit, or grade slope. The low yellow times create a dilemma zone for motorists where you're not sure whether to stop or keep going. Ironically, motorists willing to accelerate into a yellow have a better chance of beating the camera than those of us who follow the safer practice of coasting through intersections with the brake covered. I've been driving since 1976, and driving in California without any violations or accidents since 1989 - until I was nabbed recently by one of the SM cameras. Although like you I plead guilty and did the same traffic school, I was outraged to discover the shortened yellow times, which I'd had a vague feeling weren't as long as I remembered from decades ago. Thanks for the review of the school, by the way - it helped me pick from the long list given to me by the court.

  7. KTVU news just aired a story of a woman from Napa whose $499 red light ticket was invalidated because the contract with the camera company (Redflex) included a quota clause deemed illegal under

    Wonder if Menlo Park (where we just paid my wife's ticket) uses Redflex and if these tickets already paid could be under review?


  8. Just wondering, was the fine reduced by 100 dollars or to 100 dollars?


  9. It was a $100 discount. So, I ended up paying around $400 for the ticket.

  10. According to the L. A. Times article from 07/26/2011 Drivers can disregard red-light camera tickets in L.A. Is this true

  11. Hello,

    I got a ticket at the same your intersection. I have few questions for you.

    This violations goes in your records?

    Does the car insurance went up after the tickets?

    Did you have traffic school? If yes..where? Do you have to pay anycharge for that?

    Thank you!

  12. Pietro:

    1. The violation does not go into your permanent record if you complete traffic school within the required time period. If you don't do traffic school, it goes in. Note that you can only do traffic school once every 18 months. If you get another moving violations within this period, nothing you can do.

    2. Car insurance goes up, only if the violation enters your permanent record.

    3. I did do the traffic school thing, and there's another post here about that. It's hard to find the most convenient traffic school among hundreds of choices. All are slimy and try to trick you into paying more for services you don't need. Also, some places require you spend a certain amount of time on each page, forcing you to take a long time to complete the course. San Mateo county, where I live, does not have that policy, but it seems LA county does.

    Hope this helps. Hernan.

  13. Thank you for the information!

    I saw the post on the traffic school! I hope that the traffic school you did is on the list the court will give to me!

  14. Hey.. Thanks for the information ..

    Once you get a allowed to go to a traffic school .. is it compulsory to take up a traffic school? How much does it cost?

  15. THIS IS PURE ROBBERY! Yes, I will from now on SLAM MY GODDAMN BREAKS the instant I see a yellow light or even a stale green light.

    I will also tell everyone I know about this bullshit and I am no longer proud to live in San Mateo County. In fact, I want to leave this place ASAP. I once got my car towed for being parked in a visitor section in Foster City (I was a visitor but was visiting my neighbor for 3+ days and had to pay $300 towing fee). Another time, again in Foster City, I had to pay $300 for not making a full stop at a stops sign at a 3 way intersection that was completely dead.

    I cannot wait to leave San Mateo. I'm taking my money elsewhere and will be VERY CAREFUL to be more dangerous and thus more law abiding.


  16. i did the same thing.
    wrote my defense/speech- which didn't matter anyway- and went to court today.
    i wanted a discount, at least that's what people tell me. but i also want the problem over with. my expectation was, the judge will decide my fine, i'll pay it and go to traffic school so as not to get points on my record that would lead to my insurance going up.
    so i pleaded no contest. what did you plead?
    my fine was reduced but then, i have to file a motion to see the judge again so i can do traffic school! they gave me the instructions and it's a hassle. a triplicate copy and the example shows that it should be written "legally". i thought i can just type it informally. so i might have to need a lawyer to make the motion. i might have to spend money.
    i should just have paid the whole fine and went to traffic school so my insurance wont go up. i'm going there monday to see if i can just do that.

  17. Thank you so much for this information, you have been the most helpful and the most informative. What a pain in the a__ this all is. Oh Well...
    UK has traffic camera's everywhere so at least we're not there yet!

  18. Well now the fine is at $639 for the ticket + traffic school option and since I paid online using epay they charged an additional $24.80 for "online processing" - whatever that means!! Total $664.80 - $1K of a monthly salary gone.

  19. i have heard that if you ignore your ticket, then u have to be personally served. how can anyone prove you received a ticket in the mail? letter from court states if fine not paid by certain date, your license will be suspended. how can your license be suspended if, again, you do not know you got a ticket?

  20. Hernan - Looks like you may been able to avoid the ticket completely, as it may not have really been an official ticket but a snitch ticket. Google it or go to the first part of this very long webpage explaining tickets in california:

  21. Wow. There's a lot of good information there! In my case the ticket was real. It had court information and was definitely a citation.

  22. I just found your site today, as I just got a Red-Light Camera ticket from in San Mateo, where I drive my daughter back and forth to school, and I had noticed the same thing everyone else has mentioned, that they seem to have shortened the yellow light times down so short that they actually seem to me to be shorter than 3 seconds. If it is 3 seconds, it is only just that.
    And a neighbor friend just got a ticket as well.
    We are both very careful drivers, who never go over the speed limit, never would "run" a red light.
    I watched the video of me going through, and the light turns to red, AS my car goes into the intersection, rather than IS red, and then I choose to go into the intersection.
    I have read about the increase in rear end accidents at these lights, and I can see why.
    You are driving along with the light green, and then are approaching the intersection, when it turns to yellow, and the ONLY way that you can stop in time, would be to slam on your brakes, so you make the decision, based on that the are expecting that the light will surely remain yellow for a long enough time for you to coast through the intersection, to go on through it, and then, it suddenly turns to red, just as the front end of your car inters the intersection and you are "nailed", for a HUGE sum of money.
    Both my friend and I are slow careful longtime drivers, who never do anything dangerous or aggressive when driving. The speed limit was 30 mph, and I never was going over 30 mph., so if their goal truely is to make the intersections safer, they have actually made them more dangersous by forcing drivers to slam on their brakes in order to avoid these horrendously big fines.
    That they just fined two elderly women drivers, who always strive when driving to drive as safely as possible, and both of us within only a few weeks of each other, I think, in and of itself, shows that these red-light cameras are set up deliberately, to try to entrap safe drivers into paying San Mateo money, and safety is not what is behind how they are operated at all, just revenue.
    I read that the places that have them, have to pay a fee to the companies that install and run them, but if the revenues from the cameras are enough, that they cover those fees, then, the rest is profit. Sounds to me, as though, then, once the cameras are installed, they would see it as "necessary", to do whatever they had to do, in order to see to it that they collect a certain amount of ticket revenue.
    I definitely feel victimized.

  23. I had a similar experience in San Mateo at Hillsdale and Saratoga, immediately in front of the police station, for a rolling right turn. The oncoming traffic was stopped at a light and the lane I was turning into was a separate merge lane. It is a crazy way to get a ticket! This had nothing to do with safety and no traffic cop would have even bothered to issue a warning.

    Later I went back to the same intersection and watched what other drivers did. About 80% of the drivers "California stopped" at this intersection. I figure that if all the violators get tickets like I did, the camera makes something like $10,000 a day. That's over $3,000,000 in a year! (A good chunk of that goes to the camera company.)

    BTW, the amount of the fine is set by State, not the county, as near as I can tell.

  24. I can't believe how many people fall for this. I've had 3 of these over the past 6 years in San Francisco. Since the vast majority of us law-abiding, Bay Area citizens are too busy working to pay costly rent bills, how many of us really have time for court and traffic school? Let alone $500 in fines!?

    My solution: don't pay them. It's trash not even worth recycling.
    I've never paid any of these and nothing has ever happened. Take a look at your 6th amendment rights. What they're doing is not just illegal, it's wrong. Stop handing them your hard-earned money.

  25. Hi there, I just got photographed in San Mateo or something. I was behind a very slow car did not know where he is going so I sped by on the right.

    What do you think the chances are that I do not get the tickets in the mail? It feels like I was already in the intersection when the camera lights flashed.

    I think a while ago I remember camera light flashing but I never got the ticket.




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