Texas drivers who blow through red lights — or turn right too quickly at them — have paid more than $144 million to the state over the past decade.
And that’s just half the money. The other half goes to cities where the violation occurred.
Fort Worth is one of those cities, and it now has a target on its back.
Kelly Canon, who led a successful effort to have red light cameras shut off in Arlington two years ago, is now going after Fort Worth, which made $2.44 million off the tickets in 2016.
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“It is a blatant constitutional violation,” Canon said. “These cameras cannot prove you were the one driving the car at the time of the infraction. They can only take a picture and send it to the owner of the car.
“It goes against the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth amendments.”
Canon said she and others plan to spend six months gathering signatures on petitions — 20,000 or more — to persuade Fort Worth City Council members to put the issue on the November 2018 ballot and let voters decide whether the cameras that have been up since 2008 should stay.
Fort Worth City Manager David Cooke said the cameras aren’t designed to be a money-maker for the city.
“There’s a reason to have red light cameras,” he said. “It is to make the city safer and to reduce accidents and collisions at intersections. “We think they are effective.”
He understands that there is opposition to the cameras locally and across the state.
“If petitions come to the city, I’m up for any good public policy debate that considers both sides of an argument,” he said.
After Fort Worth, the effort to remove red light cameras could shift to the Texas Legislature in 2019.
“The goal is to see them gone through the whole state,” Canon said.
In May 2015, Arlington voters opted to shut down the cameras, 59.5 percent to 40.5 percent.
Gov. Greg Abbott has said he supports letting cities decide whether they should have red-light cameras.
While Canon and others firmly believe the cameras violate the U.S. Constitution and actually increase accidents, others contend that they make streets safer and generate needed revenue.
Cameras are set so vehicles entering intersections after the light has turned red — and those that don’t pause long enough before making a right turn on a red light — 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.
After each offense, a $75 ticket is automatically sent to the car’s owner.
Nearly two dozen states in the U.S. allow these cameras, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.
‘It’s a civil penalty’
While the revenue is good, it would be better if more motorists paid their tickets.
In Fort Worth, for instance, 231,319 red-light camera tickets were issued during the last fiscal year. But more than half — 124,477 — were sent to collections because they were unpaid, city records show.
Red-light camera tickets are civil violations, unlike speeding, which is criminal.
That means they don’t show up on driving records or impact insurance rates. And these unpaid tickets can’t be reported to a credit bureau, so your credit rating is safe.
“It won’t impact a darn thing,” said Canon, who was recently in the news for sharing Facebook messages with sexual overtones she received from U.S. Rep. Joe Barton.
That’s certainly the case in Tarrant County. But it’s not that way everywhere.
Some Texas counties, such as Dallas, flag motorists with unpaid red-light tickets and block their vehicle registrations until the tickets are paid.
Locally, the tax assessor collector 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,” says Tax Assessor Collector Ron Wright, who has resigned the post to run for Congress. “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.”
But any tickets left unpaid will trigger reminder notices — and repeat notices that a $25 late fee will be added to the bill.
“There is a debt that is created,” said Ryan Turner, general counsel and director of education for the Texas Municipal Courts Education Center. “It may result in the matter being turned over to a collection agency. It may result in their not being able to renew their vehicle.
“But it may not be reported to a credit bureau,” he said. “And it will not go on a criminal record because it’s not a criminal matter. It’s a civil penalty.”
Money, money, money
When the revenue comes in to cities across the state, one of the first payments made is to the camera vendor.
After that, some operating costs may be deducted — and then the city and state generally split the rest of the revenue 50-50.
Totals fluctuate each year, according to a Star-Telegram review of red light camera revenue from the state and some cities in Tarrant County.
Since 2010, Fort Worth has added $16.29 million in red light ticket revenue to its coffers.
At the same time, North Richland Hills gained more than $800,000 and Haltom City picked up nearly $1 million.
The state has received healthy payments through the years — more than $15.2 million last year, compared with $17 million in 2015, $16.2 million in 2014 and $15.3 million in 2013, according to the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts.
City portions of the money are used for a variety of safety initiatives. The state’s portion is earmarked for trauma and EMS facilities.
Supporters say these cameras are needed to generate money for safety initiatives across the state — and slow Texas motorists down.
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 an increase 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.
In Fort Worth, red-light revenue is used for signs, signal maintenance and pavement markings. In North Richland Hills, that money is spent on speed-limit signs, solar-powered computerized traffic message boards, traffic control and more.
But 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 police declined to comment on whether they’d seen changes in driver behavior or increases/decreases in crashes since voters shut down red-light cameras.
‘Changes driver behavior’
Efforts to get rid of the law allowing red light cameras died during the regular legislative session earlier this year.
Police chiefs, mayors and trauma experts implored lawmakers to leave the cameras alone, saying Texas roads will become more dangerous if they are not used.
“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, told lawmakers earlier this year.
“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.”
Grassroots Texans then turned their appeal to Gov. Greg Abbott, asking him to add the the issue to the month-long July 18 special session.
“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 Republican Party Chairman Tim O’Hare.
Abbott did not add the issue to the list lawmakers could consider this summer.
But the lack of legislative success this year isn’t slowing down those determined to end the life of the cameras.
”We will still go to the state in 2019,” Canon said. “I’m already talking to state legislators right now and I have people already lined up to file the bill as soon as they can.”