Texas Politics

Should Texas turn off its red-light cameras?

Signs warn drivers that red light cameras are ahead.
Signs warn drivers that red light cameras are ahead. Star-Telegram

Is it time to put the brakes on red-light cameras in Texas?

That’s a question for state lawmakers this year, as nearly a dozen bills propose everything from turning off the cameras completely to requiring that county tax officials not block vehicle registrations for unpaid red-light camera tickets.

The controversial issue sparks support from those who believe the cameras make streets safer and generate needed money for other road safety efforts and opposition from those who maintain that the cameras violate the constitution and actually increase accidents.

“The entire system is so flawed,” said Kelly Canon, who helped lead a successful effort two years ago to remove red-light cameras from Arlington. “Cameras can’t prove who is driving the car. They will never be able to ID the driver.

“It’s a backward process where you have to prove your innocence,” she said. “The burden should be on the state to prove you are guilty.”

At a time when red-light camera tickets are on the rise in Fort Worth — 225,244 tickets were issued in the last fiscal year, compared with 196,705 in 2015, 191,229 in 2014 and 184,823 in 2013 — two red-light camera bills could soon reach the Texas Senate for consideration.

One would ban the cameras statewide. The other would prevent county and state officials from withholding vehicle registrations because of outstanding red-light camera tickets.

State Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, said he filed these bills after hearing complaints about the ticket process violating the Constitution and reviewing studies that indicate the cameras don’t make roads safer.

The goal, he said, is “to permanently protect individual rights and end an unsafe practice in Texas.”

But police chiefs, mayors and trauma experts, among others, are asking Hall — and all Texas lawmakers — to leave the cameras alone, saying Texas roads will become more dangerous if they are not used.

“Removing this potentially life-saving technology will result in increased injuries and fatalities as well as increased costs to Texas trauma centers,” said Mary Ann Contreras, the violence and injury prevention manager for Trauma Services at the JPS Health Network.

Nearly a dozen bills address red-light cameras. A proposal to ban the cameras passed the Senate two years ago but died in the House. This year’s legislative session runs through May 29.

Two sides

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, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.

Cameras are set so that only vehicles entering the intersections after the light has turned red are photographed. Vehicles entering the intersection on yellow that are still in the intersection when the light turns red are not photographed, according to the Texas Department of Transportation.

Government’s use of the cameras has 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.

Both sides say studies back up their arguments.

The Texas Traffic Safety Coalition says data shows that red-light cameras have cut down on traffic problems. For instance, Sugar Land saw a 58 percent drop in crashes at intersections with red-light cameras, Frisco noted a 51 percent drop in accidents, Plano found a 50 percent drop in rear-end collisions at red-light intersections and Austin saw a 40 percent drop in crashes at photo-enforced intersections.

“This data is clear: Traffic safety cameras save lives and prevent injuries and fatalities,” Frisco Deputy Police Chief David Shilson said.

But Hall cites a study by the Urban Transit Institute at the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University that shows that red-light cameras impact safety and have been linked to an increase in accidents and possible injury crashes.

And he said a separate study by the Virginia Transportation Research Council determined that their findings “cannot be used to justify the widespread installation of cameras because they are not universally effective.”

Camera supporters

Those who support the cameras say drivers change their behavior because of them, which cuts down on accidents.

“Shouldn’t the health and safety of Texas citizens be left to local law-enforcement who knows their communities and their needs best?” asked Contreras, of JPS. “The bottom line is traffic safety cameras save lives and help keep our communities safe.”

In Fort Worth, there are 58 cameras at 44 intersections, which last year generated more than $8.9 million in fines, city records show.

Officials say crashes at these locations have dropped 58 percent since the program began in 2008.

“The reason we have red-light cameras is for safety in the intersections,” said Richard Martinez, assistant director of Fort Worth’s Transportation and Public Works Department who testified against both of Hall’s bills in a Senate committee hearing. “Drivers who know there are cameras at the intersections slow down. They don’t run them as much.

“Safety is why we go for this,” he said. “It’s not about funding or revenue.”

He and others note that the city’s share of the fine revenue, after adjustments and operating expenses — as well as sending half to the state — goes into the city’s Safety Fund, which makes improvements to traffic signals, traffic signs, intersections and crosswalks in school zones.

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 $15.2 million, down from $17 million in 2015, $16.2 million in 2014 and $15.3 million in 2013, according to the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts.

Camera opponents

Arlington residents were so opposed to the cameras that they petitioned to put the issue on the ballot two years ago. Then, on Election Day, they voted to turn off the cameras.

Canon, who helped lead that effort, testified on Hall’s two bills and wants to see cameras turned off across the state.

She said she hopes Senate Bill 88, which would ban the cameras in Texas, will be amended to eliminate a grandfather clause that indicates current red light camera contracts are not impacted. State Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, signed on as a co-author of the bill.

“These current contracts could go out and get extensions before this bill passes and we could be dealing with them for decades,” Canon said.

Senate Bill 87, she said, is the key to success, though. This bill prevents county tax-assessor collectors or the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles from refusing to register a vehicle with outstanding red-light camera violations.

“They can’t hold the vehicle registration hostage,” she said. “SB 87 is going to take out the teeth of the law.”

Some Texas counties, such as Dallas, flag those with these unpaid tickets and block their vehicle registration until the fines are paid.

That doesn’t happen in other counties, such as Tarrant.

“That would put me in the position of policing things,” said Ron Wright, Tarrant County’s tax-assessor collector, who doesn’t block registration for unpaid red-light camera tickets. “I’m not here to collect red-light camera fines.

“I’m here to collect property taxes.”

Beyond that, if he blocks registration for these unpaid fines, then cities might want him to block registration for other fines as well.

“If you’re doing it for red-light cameras, why not do it for running a stop sign or any other tickets they have?” Wright asked. “It creates more trouble than it’s worth for the tax-assessor collector’s office.”

Anna Tinsley: 817-390-7610, @annatinsley