Politics & Government

End of the road for red-light cameras?

Signs warning motorists about intersections monitored by red light cameras are posted in cities statewide. This sign is on Davis Boulevard in North Richland Hills.
Signs warning motorists about intersections monitored by red light cameras are posted in cities statewide. This sign is on Davis Boulevard in North Richland Hills. Star-Telegram

Arlington residents will weigh in next month on an issue that has swept the state: Should the government pull the plug on red-light cameras?

They’ll vote on the matter because more than 11,000 residents signed petitions asking city leaders to get rid of the cameras.

Public safety officials are pushing to keep the cameras, but that hasn’t stopped concerns from spreading — sparking lawsuits and leading legislators to consider scrapping the cameras statewide.

“We are tired of being bilked for every dime we have in the false name of safety,” said Kelly Canon, a member of Citizens for a Better Arlington and a vice president of the Arlington Tea Party. “It is not a safety feature on our intersections. It is a money-grabbing scheme and we are tired of it.”

Canon helped lead the effort to put the issue before Arlington voters, and she will be in Austin today testifying before legislative committees considering proposals to end red-light cameras in Texas.

“We’ve had enough,” she said. “It’s over. Their cash cow is about to get brought down.”

Not everyone feels that way.

A group of more than 30 officials statewide sent a letter to lawmakers Wednesday supporting the use of the cameras and asking that they stay in place.

“Texas communities use traffic safety cameras to reduce red light running, reduce crashes and save lives, and these programs have had enormous success,” says the letter, which includes signatures from city or police leaders in Arlington, Bedford, Haltom City and Richland Hills.

“However, these bills seek to ban, limit or place restrictions on the use of red light cameras and put the public’s safety at risk,” the letter says. “This would drastically reduce the ability of our Texas police departments to enforce and hold accountable drivers who run red lights.”

In Arlington

Texas has had red-light cameras since 2003.

Critics say they go too far, letting government invade Texans’ privacy, monitoring movements and raking in cash for cities that use them at high-traffic intersections.

Some violators say they weren’t caught running a red light, just not coming to a full stop before turning right on red.

Supporters say that the cameras help uphold the law and that they’re working, reducing accidents and deaths and generating money for cities and states. They say drivers can’t reasonably expect privacy on a public road.

In Arlington, more than 11,000 residents signed petitions asking city leaders to shut off the cameras, which bring in about $2.1 million in fines a year.

While officials say the cameras have helped reduce accidents, opponents say rear-end crashes are on the rise at intersections with cameras. And they believe the cameras are just a moneymaker for the city.

Early voting continues through Tuesday for the May 9 election.

“The red-light cameras are not … constitutional,” Canon said. “They do not give us our due process of law. The cameras can’t identify the driver, just the vehicle.”

Jody Weiderman of Arlington tried to keep the issue off the ballot, asking a Tarrant County judge to block the city from calling for a vote. State District Judge Tom Lowe dismissed the request.

“I think it’s a great program and it needs to stay in the city of Arlington,” Weiderman said in court.

In the Legislature

Several proposals on red-light cameras are scheduled to be heard by members of the House Transportation Committee today.

Already through the Senate is Senate Bill 714, by Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, which would prevent the cameras from being used at intersections. But they wouldn’t be turned off until existing contracts expire.

“This is a concept that sounded good on paper but failed miserably in real-world application,” Hall has said.

Among the proposals lawmakers are considering:

▪ House Bill 142, by Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, would prevent the use of red-light cameras.

▪ HB740, by Rep. Dwayne Bohac, R-Houston, would require that signs warning about the presence of red-light cameras also list how much violations cost.

▪ HB1131, by Rep. Gary Elkins, R-Houston, would prohibit the cameras.

▪ HB1710, also by Bohac, would allow cities to prevent red-light cameras once local voters weigh in. Holding those elections would require a petition signed by 10 percent of registered voters.

A new lawsuit

This month, a 70-page lawsuit was filed in Tarrant County against 53 cities and several companies that operate the cameras.

The suit stemmed from a ticket that James H. Watson of Shreveport received for a violation at a Southlake intersection last year.

Watson says that he wasn’t in his 2009 Honda and that he didn’t knowingly let anyone else use his vehicle at that time and place.

But he was mailed a $75 ticket, which noted that a $25 late fee would be added if he didn’t pay promptly. If unpaid, the fine could go to a collection agency or prevent him from renewing his car registration.

“Faced with the threat of damage to his credit or the loss of the right to renew his vehicle registration, [he] paid the $75 penalty,” the lawsuit says, adding that Watson “paid this penalty under coercion or duress.”

He wants his money back, and he wants a ruling that the cameras are unconstitutional, which means they would be turned off, said his attorney, Russell Bowman of Irving.

He argues that the cameras are illegal because the Texas Constitution gives a person “the right to confront … the witnesses against him.” The transportation code, however, denies those rights to anyone who receives a red-light-camera ticket, the lawsuit says.

Uncollected fines

Nearly two dozen states allow red-light cameras, and fewer than a dozen specifically restrict their use, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.

Each ticket carries a $75 fine, amounting to millions of dollars statewide. After camera vendors are paid a portion, half the revenue stays in the city where the violation occurred and half goes to the state.

During the last fiscal year, the state collected more than $16.2 million, up from $15.4 million in 2013 and down from $16.6 million in 2012, according to the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts.

The money was earmarked for regional trauma centers in Texas, but lawmakers have authorized that only once — in 2009, when the department sent $13.3 million to 128 facilities, including the JPS Health Network, Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Fort Worth and Harris Methodist Northwest, state records show.

No other disbursements have been made, and the money has been growing, now hovering around $100 million, officials have said.

Millions of dollars in fines go uncollected each year. That’s because the law has no real teeth unless county officials agree to prevent motorists from updating their registrations until they’ve paid their red-light tickets.

Some counties are doing that, but Tarrant County won’t. Local officials say it isn’t their job to enforce ticket collections for cities and the state.

Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, has filed a proposal geared toward preventing county assessor-collectors and the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles from requiring Texans to pay red-light fines before registering their vehicles.

Anna M. Tinsley, 817-390-7610

Twitter: @annatinsley

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