Texas Politics

Frustrated with red light cameras in Texas? You’re not alone.

Signs across the state warn drivers that there are red light cameras ahead.
Signs across the state warn drivers that there are red light cameras ahead. Star-Telegram

Some Texans say it’s time for Gov. Greg Abbott to turn off red light cameras across the state — once and for all.

In fact, a group of Texans has delivered a letter to his office as part of a grassroots effort, asking him to put the contentious issue before state lawmakers, who head back to work July 18 for a special session.

“We need your support to ban red light cameras, period,” the letter states.

The issue has long sparked support from those who believe the cameras make streets safer and generate money needed for road safety efforts. It continues to draw opposition from those who say the cameras violate the U.S. Constitution and actually increase accidents.

“The main focus is the fact they are completely unconstitutional,” said Kelly Canon, an Arlington woman who delivered the letter to Abbott’s office in Austin. “You are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty.

“These [tickets] turn it around,” said Canon, co-founder of the SE Tarrant Tea Party who helped lead a successful effort two years ago to remove red light cameras from Arlington. “The cameras cannot prove you were the one driving. They can only prove your car was at that intersection doing that deed. That’s horrible.”

Police chiefs, mayors and trauma experts are among those who this year have asked lawmakers to leave the cameras alone, saying Texas roads will become more dangerous if they are not used.

Last year, there were more than 22,000 accidents — including 96 fatalities — in Texas when motorists didn’t stop at red lights. Nearly 1,700 of those accidents, and two of the fatalities, were in Tarrant County, according to Texas Department of Transportation records.

That’s up from 9,646 accidents, including 72 fatalities, at Texas intersections in 2011. Three of those deaths, and 737 of the accidents, were in Tarrant County, state records show.

Red light cameras have been used for decades around the world to try to stop accidents at busy intersections.

Red-light cameras have been used for decades all over the world to try to stop accidents at busy intersections. Nearly two dozen states in the U.S. allow them, 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 but still in the intersection when the light turns red are not photographed, according to the Texas Department of Transportation.

Abbott has called lawmakers back to the Capitol on July 18 to tackle a list of 20 items ranging from a bill to address where transgender Texans may use the bathroom to tweaking tree ordinances. Lawmakers have 30 days to do their work.

Big brother is watching

Critics say government is invading privacy by monitoring movements and raking in cash for cities that use the cameras 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.

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.

The letter calling for a red light camera ban points out that the Texas Republican Party platform opposes photo traffic enforcement cameras.

“Those of us who have been in the fight against red light cameras will attest that these cameras are not about safety, but are yet another unconstitutional overreach by these municipalities,” according to the letter signed by nearly 100 grassroots Republicans including Tarrant County Tax Assessor-Collector Ron Wright and Tarrant County Republican Party Chairman Tim O’Hare.

Abbott has said he supports letting Texans decide whether to have red light cameras in the state.

“Big brother is not only collecting and selling your information, he is also watching you as you drive through traffic lights,” he wrote in his 2013 “We the People Policy Plan.” “Both the advocates of red light cameras and detractors have a point. One emphasizes safety, the other privacy.

“But I believe it should be up to you the people to decide whether red light cameras are right for your community. So I propose changing Texas law to allow voters the option to repeal red light camera ordinances by voter-initiated referendum.”

‘Health and safety’

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.

“Texas police departments support the use of traffic safety cameras because this proven technology changes driver behavior and reduces crashes,” Mary Ann Contreras, the violence and injury prevention manager for Trauma Services at the JPS Health Network, said in a statement during the regular session.

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

Each ticket carries a $75 fine.

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.

Ticket repercussions

Some Texas counties, such as Dallas, flag motorists with unpaid red light tickets and block their vehicle registrations until the fines are paid, but that is not the case in Tarrant County.

Wright has issued a letter stating that “Tarrant County does not block vehicle registration for unpaid light camera fines.”

“The penalty is a civil penalty and not a criminal penalty,” he wrote. “It is up to the Tax Assessor-Collector in each county if vehicle registrations are blocked because of these fines. I have chosen not to block them.”

red light cameras
Red light cameras monitor cars that stop, or don’t, at the traffic lights across the state. Sharon M. Steinman STAR-TELEGRAM

At the same time, a 70-page lawsuit addressing red light cameras, filed against 53 cities and several companies that operate them, is on hold.

In that case, James H. Watson of Shreveport received a $75 ticket in the mail for a violation at a Southlake intersection in 2014. But he says he wasn’t in his 2009 Honda and he didn’t knowingly let anyone else use his vehicle at that time and place.

He was told if he didn’t pay the ticket, a $25 late fee could be added and the fine could go to a collection agency or prevent him from renewing his car registration.

Redflex Traffic Systems, one of the companies named in the suit, filed a motion asking to be released from the lawsuit. When that was denied, Redflex appealed the entire case.

“At this point, we are simply waiting for a ruling from the Fort Worth Court of Appeals, so that the case can then move forward,” said Russell J. Bowman, an attorney on the case.

American Traffic Solutions (ATS), the leading road safety camera provider in North America, wants drivers to see this year’s compilation of the worst red-light running crash videos and realize they are too dangerous to ignore.

Anna Tinsley: 817-390-7610, @annatinsley

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