Cities and private contractors cash in on red light camera ticketing systems in the name of "public safety."
Citizine | April 25, 2007
Austin, Texas - A new boom is taking place across Texas that may improve public safety at busy intersections but is certain to make governments and private contractors loads of money: the "red-light camera." Red light cameras mark the first step toward "photo-enforcement" of traffic laws in the state, and may lead to "speed cameras" and the eventual issuance of fines for various other traffic violations caught on camera.
The Daily Texan reported (April 10, 2007) that Austin’s Department of Public Works will be doing a “red light camera” pilot program for a couple months at two intersections (the corner of Riverside and Pleasant Valley being one of them). They will test the cameras to make sure the technology works according to plan and identifies vehicles correctly so that each fine can be mailed to the appropriate address.
City of Austin employee David Gerard said, “The whole intent behind a red light photo enforcement system is to reduce red light violations to improve the safety of our intersections,” and said the cameras reduce the number of front-to-side crashes that can occur when someone runs a red light.
Sgt. Jim Beck, president of the Austin Police Association, says red light cameras are important for increasing the safety of Austin intersections: “Whatever we can do to improve public safety is worth a try.”
Round Rock is expected to install several red-light cameras soon as well. Round Rock City Council approved their red-light camera revenue program on March 8. According to the Austin American-Statesman (March 22, 2007): “City officials say that they have not heard from any residents opposed to the program.”
David Bartels, Round Rock public works administrator, said, “The camera system uses technology that is already in place at intersections to monitor traffic flow, usually a camera on top of the traffic signal or an electromagnetic loop in the street that senses metal from the car … If either of the two detects that a car is in the intersection after the light has turned red, a photo is taken. A second photo captures where the vehicle is moments later. The photos are time-stamped.”
“The last fatality caused by someone running a red light in Round Rock was six years ago,” said police department spokesman Eric Poteet.
Round Rock Mayor Nyle Maxwell says, “the program will pay for itself,” and other cities’ experiences provide proof. For example, Plano police Lt. Jeff Wise says in the year since the camera system was installed, the city of Plano has collected $600,000 in fines while the private contractors who run the system have earned $225,000 of that total paid by drivers.
Enforcement of red light violations with these cameras is getting even more stringent in some places. The Dallas Morning News reported that starting this April, even police and firefighters in Dallas will have to pay a fine if they run a red light at a photo-enforced intersection, and can’t prove it was a justifiable emergency measure. Many police officers are understandably miffed about the policy, but apparently private companies who manage the red light camera billing system have felt short-changed by Dallas emergency personnel’s freewheeling ways.
The Morning News reported: “Any Dallas police officer in a marked squad car who is captured on the city’s cameras running a red light will have to pay the $75.00 fine if the incident doesn’t comply with state law. Firefighters who run red lights will have to pay if they’re not on an emergency run … Since last year , 39 cameras have been placed at intersections, city officials said. Sixty cameras are scheduled to be up and running by May 22 … Since mid-January, the cameras have recorded at least 355 emergency vehicles running red lights.”
Innocent people are also getting caught in the net of this widening camera-ticketing revenue scheme. According to the Galveston County Daily News (April 15, 2007), Richard Gregory says he has been falsely accused of running a red light by the city of Dallas. He received a ticket in the mail with photos of a black Acura 32T running a red light nine days before, and according to the ticket, the license plate of the car in the photo matched that of Mr. Gregory. However, Richard Gregory says he has never owned an Acura, doesn’t currently have a black car, and was at home in League City (hundreds of miles away from Dallas) at 7:15 a.m. the morning when the violation occurred.
The Daily News reports, “In Gregory’s case, the ticket was issued to him because his license plates seemed to match the photo, even though the black Acura clearly didn’t match the white Chrysler the plates were registered to.” Mr. Gregory has pointed out that the officer who signed off on the photo-enforced ticket mistook an “N” for an “M” on the license plate and said, “... customer service representatives told him he has to come to Dallas to prove it wasn’t his car.”
Smaller cities are also embracing photo-enforcement of traffic. Red light camera ticketing was introduced in El Paso in October 2006, while Longview installed surveillance cameras this April and Lufkin is planning to set up cameras in late May.
The town of Kerrville is seriously considering installing red-light camera technology along the highway that passes through. “I think you could pay all the bills of Kerrville if you could do that [set up photo enforcement technology] on Texas 173,” said Kerrville Mayor Gene Smith. Kerrville police chief John Young said the city is still gathering data from vendors and that cameras might be installed at two to three intersections later in the year.
The Kerrville Daily Times (April 11, 2007) reported: “Today in Kerrville, cameras are mounted on traffic signals along state highways, but those cameras monitor traffic and are not the same technology used for issuing citations for running red lights … [red-light camera] devices capture both digital pictures and video of the intersections. The vendors own the equipment and are responsible for issuing citations, training officers, and camera maintenance … The cost to the city would be either a percentage of each citation or a per site cost … The traffic signal cameras also may record speed and can be used in other investigations, Young said …”
Suburbs of Austin such as Georgetown, Cedar Park, and Leander are also in the “early stages” looking into red-light camera installation. One report indicated that, unlike other towns, Hutto has decided they don’t have enough red light violations to justify the installation costs.
In Tyler, police chief Gary Swindle told KLTN that his city is waiting to find out what state legislation passes because if a new law is not passed, the existing traffic code may make these camera-issued fines illegal.
DOES PHOTO ENFORCEMENT IMPROVE PUBLIC SAFETY?
Aaron Quinn of the National Motorist Association questions the “public safety” benefits of the red light camera system, noting “a Virginia DOT study … found accidents increased in camera-monitored intersections because drivers were more likely to slam on their brakes and get rear-ended.”
According to the Kerrville Daily Times (April 12, 2007), a 2006 study regarding red-light cameras in Winnipeg, Canada, and the 2005 study by the Virginia Department of Transportation mentioned by Mr. Quinn showed a 58% increase in wrecks at intersections with the cameras in the two years after installation. “Both studies found a decrease in the number of people running red lights and wrecks caused by running red lights, but more incidents of rear-end collisions resulting from people slamming on breaks to avoid running the light.”
If the cameras do not keep people safer at intersections, why are so many being installed across the state? Kerrville doctor Randy Moody said the “cameras do little to improve public safety … but are very profitable for the companies that provide them.”
The Winnipeg study which dealt with the public safety benefits of red-light cameras showed the cameras had generated $15 million in revenue for the city and private vendors who manage the system, and this may be the real reason for the push to install the cameras.
KEYE-TV in Austin voiced the concerns of a rising number of drivers about the sudden lurch toward draconian “photo-enforcement” of traffic laws, reporting on April 3, 2007 that, “cities insist they need the high-tech tool to control dangerous intersections and protect public safety,” but that, “local leaders might also try to use the photo traffic cops as an electronic speed trap to fill up the city’s bank accounts.”
Mr. Quinn says the red-light camera revenue programs are often farmed out to private companies to make money off giving tickets. “This is taking enforcement of laws out of the hands of real people … If you put it in the hands of private companies that have an incentive to send out more tickets, you’re twisting things around.”
Attorney Michael Kubosh said, “It’s a money grab. It’s not about public safety. It’s about revenue.” Mr. Kubosh filed a lawsuit in February against the city of Houston after purposely running red lights at camera-controlled intersections so he could challenge the use of the new revenue machines. He said his Houston ticket was mailed from Arizona and has a payment address in Ohio, indicating out-of-state private interests are profiting from the supposed “increased public safety” at Texas intersections.
State Rep. Carl Isett of Lubbock has filed a bill this session that would ban the use of red light cameras, and many say there is wide support for this bill. State Sen. Mike Jackson (R-La Porte) also argues that cities “do not have the legal authority to use the cameras and that they should be banned.”
Two years ago, there was a chance the legislature would ban camera-issued red light tickets outright. On Feb. 28, 2005, the Texas House voted 113-23 to block all city governments in the state from using cameras to fine red-light runners. The bill, HB 259, sponsored by Rep. Gary Elkins (R-Houston) would have eliminated the civil citation loophole that had been around for two years. However, the Senate did not pass the bill so the ban did not become law.
RED LIGHT CAMERAS IN THE LEGISLATURE
The Texas Senate has passed two bills in 2007 granting specific permission to cities to mail out tickets using traffic-enforcement cameras to the owner of any vehicle involved in a recorded violation and setting the maximum fine at $75.00 for the first red light violation captured by a camera.
In exchange for state legalization of the red light camera technology, municipalities will have to give up half of the spoils from the tickets to the state government. Senate Bills 1119 and 125 (both authored by Sen. John Carona of Dallas) give the state government a new stake in turning money-making photo-enforcement of traffic into a way of life.
Sen. Carona said, “We have to decide whether we put a lasso around them [traffic cameras] to make sure they are responsibly used, or whether we don’t want to have them at all … the genie is out of the bottle” and he said it is time to regulate (legalize) the use of photo-enforced traffic tickets.
According to the Statesman, “Under Texas law, running a red light is a Class C misdemeanor that can be regulated only by the state … In 2003 legislators rejected a bill giving cities authority to issue criminal citations to red-light runners caught on camera. But they approved a change to the transportation code that year allowing civil tickets.”
Rep. Linda Harper-Brown (R-Irving) inserted the provision to allow municipalities to issue civil citations using cameras to regulate traffic. Shortly after the passage of the new regulation in 2003, Garland, a suburb of Dallas, became the first Texas city to set up a red-light camera revenue program.
LEGAL CHALLENGES TO PHOTO-ENFORCED TRAFFIC TICKETS
There have been a series of legal decisions across the U.S. ruling that tickets issued to vehicle owners with computerized camera systems are illegal according to state motor vehicle codes.
Many have ruled these camera-issued red light tickets illegal because they automatically attribute the violation to the vehicle's owner, and not to the driver who committed the moving violation, and because it sets a double standard where camera-issued tickets are civil citations (fines) while a police-issued ticket is a misdemeanor, and thus has more serious repercussions.
On April 5, the Minnesota Supreme Court unanimously ruled that tickets issued using traffic cameras in Minneapolis are against the state constitution. "The court argued that Minneapolis had, in effect, created a new type of crime: owner liability for red-light violations when the owner neither required nor knowingly permitted the violation." Traffic violations in Minnesota only apply to the driver who committed the violation, not to the owner of the vehicle.
In early 2007, Michigan attorney general Mike Cox "declared the use of red light cameras or speed cameras within the state to be illegal … Cox found that state law established red light running as a criminal violation, so that any local ordinance declaring such a violation a civil matter would be 'in conflict' with the law."
Iowa judge Gary McKenrick has also ruled that camera systems in Davenport, Iowa, are illegal because drivers should be given a criminal citation for the violation, not a civil citation, according to Iowa's motor vehicle laws. Since August 2004, over 10,000 red-light tickets and 20,000 speeding fines have been issued in Davenport using photo-enforcement cameras.
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