It's fair to say that Unwritten Rule No. 1 for any successful press conference is "Don't kill anyone." Last week, San Diego city officials came this close to breaking that rule.
Mayor Dick Murphy and Councilman Charles Lewis, partners in the mayor's Goal No. 8-"Make San Diego America's safest city"-were sailing along during the noonday gathering of cops, paramedics, journalists and a trauma surgeon who had come to a parking lot at 10th Avenue and A Street in East Village to watch the mayor re-activate the city's controversial red-light photo enforcement system.
The mayor seemed in full control from the get-go as he told the media how he anticipated the press conference would proceed. He explained how the speeches would go and how he would then walk over to a metal box suspended on a pole along 10th Avenue and push a button that would kick the system into gear.
Not like San Diego is jinxed or anything when it comes to red-light cameras, but the city has received its share of guff on the issue ever since it initially began using cameras instead of cops to bust red-light runners beginning in 1998 at 19 of San Diego's most insane intersections.
Two years ago, city officials decided to shut down the system, however, after critics accused the company operating the cameras, Lockheed Martin, of being in the business for profit rather than for saving lives. At the time, Lockheed received a $70 cut from each $271 red-light fine imposed.
Flash forward to 2003, and the city now says it has the bugs worked out of the system, including a decision to extend the yellow-light period, apparently for those drivers who absolutely, positively have to get through the intersection. Seven other intersections will be camera-enforced by December.
The statistics on such driving habits are quite astounding, really. A 1998 federal study found that two of every three Californians see other drivers run red lights every day. One in three claim they know someone who has been hurt or killed by a red-light runner. The California Highway Patrol tallied more than 26,000 red-light-related collisions in 2001, which resulted in more than 15,500 injuries and 93 deaths.
After the mayor and the red-light-camera backers offered up their sound bites for the media (a favorite being Lewis' "If you don't want the ticket, slow down!"), everyone clamored for position to watch the next phase of the press conference: a red-light-running demonstration by police.
To ensure total safety, the police stopped traffic from all directions, including vehicles waiting to get downtown from state Route 163. At the appointed moment, an unmarked black sedan zipped through a red light, setting off the flashes and multiple cameras that recorded the "violation."
Just in case the TV crews didn't get that one, a white unmarked car set up for another run. But just before it reached the intersection, a patrol officer barked: "Get outta the way!"
At that moment, a burly pedestrian narrowly missed getting hit while crossing 10th Avenue. It seems an officer who was stationed at the corner across from the media horde had departed early for a court appearance. "Oh, boy. That was close," one officer sighed.