Is the clock about to run out on red-light cameras in Texas?

Is it time to turn off red-light cameras across the state?

A proposal calling for just that — Senate Bill 653, by state Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood — went through its first committee hearing this session.

Dozens of Texans weighed in Wednesday, as supporters said the cameras make streets safer and generate needed money while critics argued that the cameras violate the U.S. Constitution and lead to rear-end accidents.

“The Texas Legislature’s responsibility first and foremost is the protection of the people of Texas,” Hall said in presenting his proposal. “That includes violations of constitutional rights and protection from things that put their safety at risk.”

Similar bills to turn the cameras off in Texas have died in the past.

But this session, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has said Texas should ban the devices. “This is a matter of due process,” he tweeted this week. “Police can always enforce traffic laws in person.”

And he sent a shout-out to state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, who is carrying a companion bill that more than 100 House members have signed on to in support.

Vehicles entering intersections monitored by the cameras are photographed if they enter after the light has turned red. After an offense, a $75 ticket is mailed to the car’s owner. Texas has had red-light cameras since 2007. They’ve been in Fort Worth since 2008.

The red light camera proposal

Hall’s original bill would turn off red-light cameras across the state.

But he amended the bill Wednesday to allow cities to continue using the cameras if their contracts did not include a clause stating the practice would end if there was a change in state law.

A 2017 survey showed most contracts had such a clause, said state Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville. That means most red-light cameras would be turned off across the state if this measure becomes law.

With or without the clause, the bill would turn off the cameras in Fort Worth, where contracts for them run through 2026, officials said.

The grandfather clause was enough for Kelly Canon, an Arlington woman who led the effort to remove red-light cameras from her city years ago, to withdraw her support from the bill. The bill was left pending in committee.

“If that ever gets removed, I’ll be all happy about it again,” she said, noting that she still supports Stickland’s bill, which does not include the grandfather clause.

Stickland said Wednesday that he won’t grandfather in any existing camera contracts.

He stressed that the cameras need to be removed from Texas roads because “they are an invasion of privacy, they affect due process and they are unconstitutional.”

“Cameras can’t prove who is driving,” Cannon said after the hearing. “And the camera system sends a ticket in the mail, a civil infraction, compared to a law officer issuing a ticket after seeing you commit the violation.”

Keep Texas safe

Public safety advocates argued that the cameras keep Texas roads safe.

“Safety is the sole purpose of the red light camera program in Fort Worth,” testified Tanya Brooks, an assistant director for the city’s Transportation and Public Works Department.

She said the cameras are installed at 44 intersections in Fort Worth.

Since they went up, Brooks said the accident rate in those areas has reduced by 59 percent. And she said that 83 percent of all people who received a ticket haven’t had a second violation.

“Eliminating the program is detrimental to improving safety at the intersections in the city,” she testified.

Revenue from red-light camera fines go to the vendor and toward operating costs. After that, half the money goes to the city, where it’s used for safety initiatives, and the other half to the state, where it’s earmarked for trauma and EMS facilities.

Brooks said the city has collected nearly $80 million through red-light tickets since the cameras were first installed.

“We, the city of Fort Worth, would like to save the red-light camera program and continue to prevent crashes,” Brooks said.

Peace officers also called on lawmakers to keep the cameras, saying they save lives and free up law enforcers’ time.

Others said it’s time for the cameras to go.

“There’s a reason we have police forces,” said C.J. Grisham, founder and president of Texas Open Carry, who testified on the bill. “If we are going to go to robots, then let’s get rid of police and put robots at every street corner.”

Drivers in some areas of Texas, including Arlington in 2015, have already voted to remove cameras from their communities.

An effort to do that last year in Fort Worth failed when organizers couldn’t get enough signatures on petitions asking city leaders to put the issue on the ballot.

Texas lawmakers have until the end of their legislative session, May 27, to pass laws.

Civil violation

Critics have long said that anyone who receives a red-light camera ticket shouldn’t pay it because it’s a civil violation.

That means the tickets don’t show up on driving records or affect insurance rates. And these unpaid tickets can’t be reported to a credit bureau, so credit ratings aren’t impacted.

Some Texas counties, such as Dallas, flag motorists with unpaid red-light tickets and block their vehicle registrations until the tickets are paid. Tarrant County does not block vehicle registration for unpaid light camera fines.

But any tickets left unpaid will trigger reminder notices that the fee is due and a $25 late fee can be added to the bill. Accounts with unpaid tickets may be flagged, which likely will block online registrations.

In Tarrant County, Tax Assessor-Collector Wendy Burgess said anyone who has an account that is flagged may go to any of the eight Tarrant County tax assessor collector offices, where they will be allowed to renew their registration no matter how many unpaid red light tickets they have.

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Anna M. Tinsley grew up in a journalism family and has been a reporter for the Star-Telegram since 2001. She has covered the Texas Legislature and politics for more than two decades and has won multiple awards for political reporting, most recently a third place from APME for deadline writing. She is a Baylor University graduate.