Politics & Government

Turn off red-light cameras in Texas?

A sign warns drivers that there are red light cameras ahead.
A sign warns drivers that there are red light cameras ahead. Star-Telegram

The sudden flash as a car runs a red light on many Texas roads sends an unmistakable signal: A ticket will soon be in the mail, courtesy of the red-light camera.

But that flash — and the tickets — could be a thing of the past if state Rep. Jonathan Stickland has his way.

Stickland, R-Bedford, has filed a bill to do away with red-light cameras in Texas.

“I’ve been a liberty guy and a privacy guy,” said Stickland, who noted that getting rid of the cameras is a key issue in his district. “There are privacy concerns with the cameras.

“The Constitution tells us we have the right to face our accuser in court,” he said. “How can you face your accuser if it’s a machine? … This is a big issue.”

Red-light cameras have been controversial from the start.

Critics say government is invading privacy and going too far by monitoring movements and raking in cash for cities that use the cameras at high-traffic intersections. Some violators say they weren’t even caught running a red light, just not coming to a full stop before turning right on red.

Supporters say the cameras help uphold the law — and 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.

“The evidence shows we have reduced the number of accidents at traffic signals,” said Fort Worth Councilman Jungus Jordan, a longtime supporter of the cameras. “That’s the purpose I insist upon.

“My question to those who oppose red-light cameras: Which laws do you not want us to enforce? It is illegal to run a red light.”

Where’s the money?

Each year, the United States has millions of “intersection-related crashes” that cause deaths and may or may not be linked to red-light runners, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.

Last year, Texas had 12,224 crashes, and 90 fatalities, when motorists disregarded the “stop-go signal,” according to the Texas Department of Transportation.

That’s up from 10,582 crashes and 85 fatalities in 2013 and 10,233 crashes and 64 fatalities in 2012.

Red-light cameras have been used for decades worldwide to try to stop accidents at busy intersections. Nearly two dozen states in the U.S. allow red-light cameras, and fewer than a dozen specifically restrict their use, according to the governors association.

The cameras have been used in Texas for more than a decade after lawmakers gave the green light to the technology.

Each ticket carries a $75 fine, adding up 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, said Christine Mann, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of State Health Services.

In 2009, the department sent $13.3 million to 128 Texas facilities, including the JPS Health Network, Harris Methodist Hospital in Fort Worth and Harris Methodist Northwest, state records show.

“We have not made a disbursement since then because there was no legislative appropriation,” Mann said.

The money has been accumulating instead, now totaling about $97 million in the state’s regional trauma account, said Chris Bryan, a spokesman for the comptroller’s office.

“The Legislature makes the decision to appropriate money or not,” he said. “They have not made a decision to appropriate in years.”

Tarrant petition

Residents in some cities that use the cameras are petitioning to have them removed.

More than 11,000 Arlington residents signed petitions asking city leaders to shut down 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.

“People who think these cameras are in place for our safety need to get a clue,” petition organizer Kelly Canon has said.

Arlington leaders should decide by Feb. 24 whether to put the issue on the May ballot.

Meanwhile, cities using the cameras say that millions of dollars in fines go uncollected each year. They say they can’t do much about that unless county officials agree to prevent motorists from updating their vehicle registrations until they’ve paid their red-light tickets.

Some counties, such as Dallas, are flagging scofflaw accounts and blocking registrations until the fines are paid.

Not Tarrant County.

“That really isn’t our role,” County Judge Glen Whitley said. “We aren’t going to be the enforcer for the city and the state on one of their revenue sources.

“It’s revenue for the city and the state,” he said. “They ought to figure out a way to collect it.”

Last year in Fort Worth, 191,060 tickets were issued and $9.3 million in fines were brought in.

But an estimated 40 percent of red-light tickets aren’t paid. Since they’re civil tickets, cities can’t issue warrants compelling people to pay up.

County officials say they won’t step in because their employees shouldn’t have to take the push-back from local motorists.

“What you end up with is a constituent who is mad at the county,” Tarrant County Commissioner Gary Fickes said.

“There is no upside to the county,” Tarrant County Tax Assessor-Collector Ron Wright said. “The cities had agreed to cover my cost … but that didn’t pay for the grief my clerks would have had to go through from angry taxpayers who don’t believe there should be any connection at all between red-light-camera fines and vehicle registrations.

“There’s no obligation for me at all to do that.”

Differing opinions

The Campaign for Liberty has started an online petition to encourage Texas lawmakers to ban red-light cameras statewide.

“Politicians in Austin, as well as those in municipalities around the state, are desperate to continue this money-grab on the backs of Texas motorists,” according to the Virginia-based political group founded by former U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas. “They are raising millions of dollars through the use of these cameras, and other nefarious ‘fees,’ while bilking Texans out of their hard-earned money.”

Camera advocates disagree.

A study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety comparing large cities with and without the cameras found that the devices cut the rate of fatal accidents involving red-light running by 24 percent.

The Virginia-based education group said that properly timed traffic signals also reduce accidents and that the cameras don’t violate privacy because motorists can’t expect privacy on a public road.

Statistics show that accidents have dropped at traffic lights in Fort Worth where 58 red-light cameras are operating.

In the year before the cameras went up, those locations saw 253 accidents. In the past 12 months, they have seen 76, according to Alonzo Linan, assistant director in the Fort Worth Transportation and Public Works Department.

“Red-light running kills hundreds and injures more than 100,0000 every year. Sadly, these collisions are completely avoidable,” said Charles Territo, a senior vice president with Arizona-based American Traffic Solutions. “We encourage all drivers to obey the law and stop on red.”

‘A slam dunk’?

The National Motorists Association says red-light cameras don’t boost safety, don’t provide a true witness to the violation and don’t positively identify the motorist. The group says there are better options to keep streets safe.

“Government funds should be used on improving intersections, not on ticket cameras,” according to the Wisconsin-based association. “Even in instances where cameras were shown to decrease certain types of accidents, they increased other accidents.

“… Cities can choose to make intersections safer with sound traffic engineering or make money with ticket cameras. Unfortunately, many pick money over safety.”

Stickland said fellow lawmakers have expressed support for his bill, which would let cities keep operating cameras until their contracts expire.

His measure also prevents cameras from being used to ensure that motorists comply with speed limits.

“With all the privacy issues and concerns … this is a slam dunk, an easy decision for everyone,” he said.

In Fort Worth, Jordan, former president of the Texas Municipal League, and other officials say they are concerned about the number of complaints from motorists who say they were ticketed for running red lights when all they were doing was turning right on red.

But at the end of the day, Jordan said, the goal is to make sure everyone gets home safely.

“I’m as conservative as the next guy,” he said. “I don’t want to take away anybody’s personal liberties.

“But I don’t want anyone killed.”

Anna M. Tinsley, 817-390-7610

Twitter: @annatinsley

How the cameras work

Warning signs are set up near intersections where the red-light cameras are used. “The objective is to deter violators, not to catch them,” the Governors Highway Safety Association says.

There, video cameras capture images that show vehicles in the intersection and the color of the light. They also record the time, date and location of the offense and the license plate number.

“Cameras are set so that only those vehicles that enter the intersection after the light has turned red are photographed,” according to a statement from the Texas Department of Transportation. “Vehicles entering the intersection on yellow, and still in the intersection when the light turns red, are not photographed.”

Violators receive a $75 ticket in the mail.

— Anna M. Tinsley