Red-light Camera Programs: Lifesavers or “Scam-eras”?
Pat Monks, Attorney at Law
You may have read or heard about the red-light cameras that are popping up all over Texas. The city of Houston currently has 30 cameras in use, and plans to install 20 more by the end of summer. This would make Houston the largest user of this system for red-light enforcement in the U.S.
So what is the problem with automated devices for red-light enforcement? And how does this affect your insured? After all, nobody likes red-light runners. They endanger themselves and others, and they should be penalized.
The assumption is that enforcement alone will make the intersections safe. But shouldn’t the intersections be made safe first? The cameras levy a hidden tax on motorists. In theory, the tax is levied only on the violators who put others in danger. In reality, the game has been rigged, and we are all at risk.
In 2001, I lost a friend in a two-car crash involving a red light at an intersection. This loss motivated me to examine the myth or reality behind the red-light camera programs that some Texas legislators had proposed.
The cameras were already in use in San Diego, California, and I’d heard that a lawyer there was challenging these red-light camera citations. I’d read that a single camera in San Diego earned the city $6.8 million in revenue in 18 months. But soon afterwards, San Diego pulled the program.
It turned out that many of the locations used in the program had short yellow interval lights. Furthermore, the sensors on the machines themselves were defective. The result was that many motorists were being “ticketed” before they even entered the intersection. Several hundred red-light tickets were dismissed, and the cameras there became known as “scam-eras.” The red-light cameras stayed out of San Diego for the next 18 months, but the promise of money was too intoxicating for government officials. The cameras went up again, along with an assurance that all problems had been cured.
The first camera program in Texas began in 2004 in the city of Garland. Now several municipalities across the state are using these devices for traffic enforcement, even though the Texas legislature soundly defeated proposed red-light camera legislation by a large margin in 2003.
Nevertheless, the City of Garland passed the first ordinance for red-light enforcement in the state that declares red-light running a public nuisance. The ordinance also created a system to collect this revenue. An automated camera system takes a photo of the rear license plate of the car entering the intersection on a red light. An invoice is mailed to the owner of the car, who has 45 days to contest the matter at an administrative court. The car owner can appeal the ruling to a municipal court after paying the $75 ticket. There is no appeal to any other court.
And what happens when the owner of the vehicle doesn’t pay? Nothing -- except he or she will receive collection letters from the city and from a collection attorney. Failure to act on a red-light camera citation has no effect on most drivers. However, the recent changes in the 2007 the legislature made it possible for nonpayment of fees to holdup renewal of registration of that vehicle. It’s reported that it will take years before this enforcement is realized there is no warrant for arrest, no hold on a driver’s license renewal, no points on a driving record, and no credit reporting violation. Even the most dangerous violators may suffer no consequences at all.
Remarkably, tractor-trailer drivers will be among those least affected by red-light camera violations. In most instances, the tractor and the trailer are registered to different entities, and it is unlikely that these drivers will be properly cited for running a light.
Proponents of the cameras have several bills pending in the state legislature that are attempting to legitimize these cameras. Opponents of the cameras have filed a lawsuit in Houston, Texas that attacks the authority of the Houston red-light ordinance.
So what is the solution to making intersections safe? Simple -- lengthen the yellow time. Even the proponents of red-light cameras agree with this theory. “Longer yellow signals reduce red-light running -- there is no question about it,” says Richard Retting, senior transportation engineer at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
The relation between yellow light time and red-light running is most clearly found in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s study, “Red-light Running and Sensible Countermeasures.” This report clearly indicates that almost 80 percent of red-light entries occur within the first second of the red-light indication. The City of San Diego’s data indicated that, at one particular intersection, an increase of 1.7 seconds on the yellow reduced the monthly red-light running rate from 2,262 to 205.
So why not lengthen the yellow light interval at all intersections? Because to reduce the frequency of red-light running would reduce the number of tickets issued.
So if the cameras don’t work, then what can we do to make intersections safer? First, there should be mandatory regulation to extend the yellow light intervals. Second, penalties for violators should be increased. Currently, a red-light runner may choose to take a defensive driving course if he is the cause of an auto accident at an intersection where there is no death, or intoxication. These violators should face a Class B misdemeanor penalty with possible jail time.
Finally, rethink the purpose of the green, yellow and red lights. The yellow light is a warning that the signal is about to turn red. There is inexpensive technology used today in Asia and Europe that would insure a safer light. In Wuxi, China, we found a system that incorporated a digital clock near the light. This clock clearly shows approaching drivers how many seconds are left before the green light turns yellow. This system, coupled with stronger penalties for violators, resulted in almost no violations at all.
Bottom line -- the red-light cameras present a perverse disincentive for local jurisdictions to improve intersections with excessive red-light entries. It’s hard to fix a “problem” that is bringing in millions of dollars in revenue. However, if the proponents are successful in legitimizing these cameras, these entries could affect you and your insured driving records without doing anything for safety. If you want to join our efforts, or learn more about red-light cameras, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or (713) 666-6657.
G.P (Pat) Monks is past president of the Municipal Justice Bar Association of Texas and an attorney in private practice.