Michael Ryan

Why I just joined the growing Red Light Camera Contempt Club

Modern technology has brought us so many wonderful, useful devices to make our lives better and easier. Smart phones. GPS. Computers. An internet to watch cat videos.

Red-light cameras just aren’t among them.

I’d heard about the devices designed to catch red-light violations, read about them, never much thought about them until I arrived in Fort Worth and got flagged by one. Now I pretty much despise them. Not because it cost me $75. That’s a lot of money to me, but you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do, and I have no problem paying my debt to society.

No, my beef is more about principle than principal. I think these contraptions are completely unfair and probably unconstitutional.

All of a sudden, with no inkling that it’s happening, you open your mail one day and the city claims that on a certain date at a certain time and a certain place, maybe a month ago, you entered an intersection too late for the camera’s taste. Here’s a photo. Send us money.

Where do I begin?

First off, how can you possibly mount a defense to something you didn’t know about and which a machine says allegedly happened weeks ago? You weren’t aware of anything at all unusual because nothing traumatic or interesting happened to you to store it in your memory banks.

Then there’s the little matter of a complete lack of context. Had you entered the intersection lawfully, but were slowed by something ahead that the camera didn’t see and doesn’t know about? Was there someone on your tail you thought might rear-end you if you stopped suddenly, and who then stopped himself and made you look bad?

Moreover, with a machine, there’s no nuance or discretion. A police officer could at least employ common sense or even empathy to mete out justice on the spot. Ask yourself: Why don’t they also have machines that handle appeals of red-light-camera tickets? Answer: Because the human element would be lacking there, too. And justice requires judgment.

A Star-Telegram story last July claimed that, “Cameras are set so vehicles entering intersections after the light has turned red … are photographed.” Well, I know machines are perfect and don’t make mistakes – contrary to every science fiction movie ever made, I might add – but I simply don’t believe I entered that intersection after the light turned red. It would be completely out of character.

But then, how’s a machine going to know or assess that?

Probably the biggest effect of these Big Brother accessories is psychological. After getting one of these tickets, and maybe beforehand, paranoia creeps in. You feel the government watching over your shoulder. You wonder if the light up ahead is going to change suddenly and trap you in a $75 split-second misjudgment. You’re tempted to start stopping preemptively just in case, risking rear-end collisions — which statistics have proven to be the case.

You feel like a scofflaw – and, not by coincidence, that’s what authorities call the approximately half of motorists who simply choose not to pay the $75 because there’s virtually no enforcement mechanism.

I looked up scofflaw in the thesaurus: lawbreaker, public enemy, criminal. Nice tag to put on someone, especially tourists who may be a little dizzy from their surroundings. “Hope you enjoyed your visit here – now pay up!”

I felt significantly better after learning I’d inadvertently joined a large and growing Camera Contempt Club, whose $75 dues are purely optional.

This newspaper editorialized to “Unplug red light cameras” last April, long before my arrival, because so many of the citations go unpaid. Citizen activist Kelly Canon led a successful drive to ban the cameras in Arlington in 2015, earning 60 percent of the public vote to shutter them. (A petition to do the same in Fort Worth fizzled last summer.) The Texas Senate has twice approved bills to ban them; let’s hope both chambers do it this session. And Russell Bowman, an Irving insurance lawyer, is among a number of folks fighting the gadgets in court – and he has the Texas Supreme Court seriously considering throwing them out.

Besides the argument that it’s impossible to properly confront a mechanical accuser who cites you weeks after the fact, one other legal argument is that lawmakers made an error while drafting the law back in 2007.

Do you think they remember doing it? Maybe we should send them a picture of the mistake and ask them to defend it.

The Star’s Michael Ryan, a Kansas City native, is an award-winning editorial writer and columnist and a veteran reporter, having covered law enforcement, courts, politics and more. His opinion writing has led him to conclude that freedom, civics, civility and individual responsibility are the most important issues of the day.