Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Protest tickets from red light cameras

The City of Houston will begin to give tickets to alleged red light runners using cameras at intersections this fall. Regular readers know I think this is a terrible idea that will actually increase injury accidents.

The launching of this boondoggle gives rise to Grits' mischevious muse: I wonder, if Houstonians, or at least a bunch of them, all chose to contest their tickets from the get-go, how long would the city keep the program up in the wake of looming court backlogs?

These camera-based tickets are civil, not criminal penalties, meaning their issuance automatically raises equal protection (14th Amendment) claims -- some red light runners are prosecuted under criminal statutes, where an officer must witness a traffic violation to give a ticket, while others are charged with civil violations where drivers don't enjoy the same protection from abuse.

Plus, the fine is based on no evidence but a photograph that doesn't show the surrounding street, the light, the circumstances, etc.
You'd think drivers could successfully contest tickets by telling the judge, given the totality of the circumstance (slick streets, another driver following too close, etc.), that it was less dangerous to run the light. What evidence could be introduced that says otherwise?

Message to Houstonians: If you don't like the proliferation of government surveillance cameras around your city, contest red light camera tickets when they come in the mail. Every time. Make them prove it. Why not?


Red light cameras aren't about public safety. They're about generating revenue. If increased court costs ate up their profits, I doubt the city would actually pay extra
for red light enforcement. If they were willing to do that, they'd just hire enough officers to enforce the traffic laws in the first place.

12 comments:

Mike said...

I normally agree with everything you write, but this red-light thing really seems to bug you a lot more than it would nominally merit. If revenue-generation vs law-enforcement was your primary beef with this, the law could easily be written in such a way as to limit the revenue 'generated' in a number of ways I can think of off the top of my head.

And as for the 'just stick enough cops there to enforce the law' -- I agree in general that cops should spend more time on traffic violations other than speeding, but how on earth could you ever get enough cops to make a major dent? And, of course, there's the issue of 'nobody runs a red light when they see a cop on the corner' - meaning that enforcement is going to have to be sneaky and tricky and will then foster the same kind of resentment people have for 'speed traps'.

Personally, I think we need to bite the bullet and do what England has done - make the law inviolable and automatically enforced. Only then will you get people mad enough to change speed limits that are too low, or traffic light cycles that are too short, or whatever.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@ Mike,

Hey, glad to have a transportation buff weigh in. And you're right I've got a burr under my saddle on this one.

Truth is, my PRIMARY beef is with the proliferation of a connected set of government surveillance cameras that (as the Chinese did after the Tienanmen Square massacre identifying dissidents from traffic camera photos) may ultimately be used for other purposes. I'm also troubled by the due process implications of a machine authorizing, unassisted by human judgement, a financial penalty for alleged misconduct, however mundane -- England doesn't have one of those pesky Bill of Rights, after all. But even from a traffic safety standpoint, I'm convinced it doesn't make much sense.

The bottom-line safety question is what's the best way to reduce accidents. The hire-more-cops line, you're right, may have been a little flippant. The truth is, most red light running isn't malicious and there are easy technical fixes. E.g., a much greater benefit in wreck reduction may be had simply by lengthening yellow lights to 4.5-5 seconds. By contrast, cameras don't reduce red-light running as much, and they empirically produce MORE injury accidents when you include rear-enders. The engineering solution is the better one, IMO. The only reason for government to prefer the camera-enforcement approach, that I can see, is revenue generation, and if they want to do that, IMO, they should just be honest raise my taxes. Thanks for stopping by.

JD Allen said...

Well, I often DISAGREE with everything you write, but I am with you on this one. Actually, I just said that. I often agree with what you write. Some of it, anyhow. Sometimes.

And if anyone believes that surveillance cameras are only for traffic violations - remember the camel in the tent parable.

We should be thankful, though, that HPD has not yet installed the automatic missile-launchers beside the cameras. To be used only on repeat violators, of course.

Anonymous said...

The crux here: It's the money that matters. The vendor will get a proportion of the gate, and the customer will get the rest. So the customer will not mind if the vendor 'helps things along', by, for example, cheating, which will boost revenues for the vendor and the customer. The camera timing can 'start early', dinging the cars entering on the yellow, ahead of those entering on the red. Think about how hard it would be to prove in a courtroom that the game is rigged, especially if the device logic is remotely programmable.

It is possible to fight against the scam, if enough people will support resistance. Simply follow the rule of one car per lane on each green. Traffic will jam up so bad so fast that all available police units will be out directing traffic at stoplights. Then use your camera to take a picture of the cop at that intersection before he signals you to cross. There's your proof for the court in case the redlight cameras are not disabled and 'ding' you while you cross in obedience to the police officer.

Cory said...

One of the main issues that Harris County residents take with the cameras is that Mayor White and other local transportation authorities refused to even look at alternative methods for reducing collisions at alternating intersections.

Two good proposals: lengthening yellow times and creating a delay between red/green switchovers, were dismissed with minimal debate in favor of something that generates revenue.

If those options had been implemented statistics show that intersection collisions would have been reduced by a sizable amount, thus eliminating the need for the cameras. (since the Mayor's main thrust for them was "public safety")

Regarding the police issue: HPD is currently in the middle of a massive officer shortage due to short-sighted pension rules issued by our former mayor and no plan to replace the officers that retired.

Even IF you put officers there, the resulting patrol shortage would increase the already burgeoning crime levels in Houston neighborhoods.

I've got zero beef with the rank and file members of HPD, the many that I come into contact with are fine officers who genuinely give a damn about the job they do. The leadership of HPD is giving them quite a mountain to climb.

markm said...

This is a case where the statistical evidence against it seems to be pretty good. Cities that have put in red-light cameras have had a net increase in accidents at the lights. People jam on their brakes on the yellow and get rear-ended.

loraksus said...

Anybody else hear of cities reducing the "yellow light time" in intersections where these cameras are in the hopes of obtaining more revenue?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@ Loraksus,

State Rep. Gary Elkins, who carried the legislation in the Texsa House trying to kill red light cameras this session, told anecdotes at the committee hearing of cities shortening the yellow light times to increase revenues. I don't remember which ones.

Anonymous said...

Althought there may be an increase in minor accidents (such as low-speed rear end collisions), there will be a reduction in serious accidents (such as car vs. pedestrian or high-speed side impact). This is an overall positive by a mile.

And the fact the city will make money for law offenders is a red herring. Taxing behavior with negative externalities (be it smoking or running a red light) should be encouraged. Plus, the money can be earmarked for more police so red light offenders get their licenses revoked and maybe go to jail.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@ anonymous: Studies found an increased number of "injury accidents" overall with red light cameras, but I've never seen breakouts as to relative seriousness. To me, if ambulances are called to the scene MORE often, then the cameras become a much less cost-effective solution. Other than revenue, I still see no reason to prefer the camera strategy to simply lenghening yellow light times. Best,

Mike said...

The accident issue is probably a good one - has anybody bothered to study this in countries where the cameras have been around a long time? My assumption is that the rear-end accidents would diminish as people got used to not being able to just gun it on yellows, but it would be nice to know for sure.

As for the revenue issue, again, one can easily conceive of laws allowing red light cameras which would not provide incentives for intersection shenanigans. That alone shouldn't be the reason to be against them. The due process issue is a far more logical one to use, although I disagree with it (no right to drive on the public roadways after all).

Angela R. Parks said...

I do not feel that red light cameras for the purpose of issuing motorist tickets is in the best interest of the motorist or the police dept., but in fact is to generated revenue as previously stated.

Sometimes running a red light is unavoidable. For instance, if I am in the middle of the intersection the light is yellow but when I look up it has changed to red. Did I intentionally run the light??

Also, I think that being videoed without permission is an infringement on my privacy.

Another reason would be what I witnessed on Nov 1, around 5:30 PM at the intersection of Beechnut and SW Freeway. The lights were not functioning properly (the green light on the feeder road was short, so some individuals ran the red light and the green light on Beechnut was too long, so some individuals ran the red light on the feeder road)

If the cameras were on at that intersection, I bet alot of people will be receiving the ticket