Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Texas AG should say 'No' to red light cameras

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has a chance to protect Texas drivers from mulcting fines and unnecessary traffic accidents. He should tell the Texas Department of Transportation (TXDoT) they can't use cameras to enforce red light violations at intersections involving state roads.

TXDoT has requested clarification from General Abbott about whether it's legal for local agencies to use cameras to give tickets for red light violations, reports the Austin Statesman ("
Cameras click, then ticket at red lights," Jan. 11). TXDoT thinks the answer is "no," but has punted the question to the AG, reported the Statesman:
The Texas Department of Transportation has contended for the past two years that it has no authority on its roads to install the cameras and levy the fines. But because many state roads pass through cities as urban streets — such as Lamar Boulevard, Ed Bluestein Boulevard or the frontage roads on Interstate 35 — some cities have been pressuring the state agency to put the cameras on those roads. Or allow them to do so.

"We're stuck in the middle," said Carlos Lopez, the Transportation Department's director of traffic operations. "People are asking us, and we just want to know if we're right or not."

In December, Transportation Department Executive Director Michael Behrens requested a formal opinion from Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott about whether the law gives the department power to levy such fines on state roads.

The section of the Transportation Code that Harper-Brown amended is titled "Powers of local authorities," so even a ruling that the state can't install the cameras might have no effect on cities' authority.

Abbott's office has requested legal briefs on the question by Feb. 6. It is unclear when he might issue an opinion.

Houston, Garland, Richardson, Plano and Frisco are among the Texas cities that either have installed the cameras or plan to do so.

Regular Grits readers know I'm no fan of red light cameras, and strongly believe they're invasive, counterproductive, and in their current form in Texas, unconstitutional. (In the interest of full disclosure, since 2001 I've helped the ACLU of Texas legislative committee oppose red light cameras at the Texas Lege.)

Other states have been rejecting them right and left. The Texas Legislature historically opposes red light cameras by a wide margin, but Representative Linda Harper-Brown of Garland slipped neutral-sounding language onto a bill in 2003 that cities claim gave them authority to issue "civil" fines for red light running. That authority has never been tested, though, in any appellate court, and it's highly debatable.

For starters, if those cities continue to allow police officers to give regular traffic tickets to red light runners, they risk violating the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution. After all, if when you run a red light it's a civil violation, but when I run it I receive a criminal charge -- especially one that costs more money than a "civil" ticket -- then we're not receiving equal protection under the law. According to the Statesman,"the camera-based fee is typically about $75, less than the $200 or so of a criminal fine levied when a police officer issues a ticket."

The crassly mercenary motives of red-light-camera proponents makes this a difficult train to slow down -- huge potential revenues cloud officials judgment to the point that the contracts for installing these cameras amount to huge profit sharing schemes. In Houston, as is typical, all vendors bidding on the project would "provide the equipment for free and then take a cut of each fine," reported the Statesman.

That contract structure inevitably leads to profit-maximizing abuses and should raise more red flags than a Bolshevik parade. In California, yellow-light times were shortened to maximize the number of tickets issued, and "Lockheed Martin IMS, which operated the San Diego system, regularly scouted intersections in some cities based on high traffic volume, not locations that were most accident-prone. Documents revealed that officials sought locations with steep gradients and short yellow-light times," reported the New York Times last year. During the 79th Texas Legislature in 2005, camera-critic state Rep. Gary Elkins harped on this point:

"In almost every city where red light cameras have been allowed there has been a manipulation of traffic signals to increase tickets by reducing the duration of yellow lights," Elkins cautioned. "It really comes down to money."
Texas law doesn't prevent cities from adjusting yellow light times however they choose to maximize revenue. In fact, reducing yellow light times may contribute to an unlikely result noted by numerous researchers over the last year: red light cameras turn out to increase, not decrease accidents overall. All the "traffic safety" malarkey you hear from camera proponents really is just a smokescreen; the stats on the ground don't justify the rhetoric. "Cameras can't make judgment calls," Rep. Elkins pointed out. "They can't account for a driver trying to avoid an accident or for wet pavement." Reported the NY Times:

Studies elsewhere ... made a striking finding: rear-end accidents have shot up at intersections with cameras. In 2002 a consultant's study in San Diego reported that the number of crashes at camera intersections had increased by 3 percent after the cameras were installed, almost all of it a result of a 37 percent increase in rear-endings. "This finding is not consistent with the program's overall objective of improving traffic safety," the report's authors concluded.

Similarly, in Virginia studies of traffic patterns in all seven VA cities using red light cameras showed an increase in injury accidents at intersections with cameras. Even more sympathetic studies show an increase in rear-end accidents, but argue that a smaller decrease in side-impact collisions justifies it. If as a result of their implementation, though, the number of ambulance visits to red light collisions in the jurisdiction actually increased, it becomes laughably difficult to justify cameras on public safety grounds.

Unconstitutional, unpopular, and unsafe -- a public policy trifecta. When you get right down to it, the drive for red light cameras really is all about the money.

UPDATE: Dallas plans to install them, too. DallasBlog has more.

16 comments:

kaptinemo said...

I live and work along the "High-Tech" corridor in Northern Virginia (commonly referred to as NOVA by its' residents) and have seen too many hard-brakings, rear-endings, swerves, slips and slides thanks to the camera at VA Route 7 and Gosnell Road.

Sure, some folks do try to beat the light, and they deserve to get nailed. But...not only do road conditions determine much of the 'flashing' going on, but if you are right behind some big-assed tractor-trailer and can't see the light changing to amber as the truck passes beneath it because the trailer is blocking your view upwards, guess what happens? You get tagged through no fault of your own as you pass as the light changes to red.

But lately, I haven't noticed much 'flashing'; perhaps the VA State officials have figured out just how bad an idea this was to begin with. I can only hope so, as insurance rates in this area are high enough already...

Steamboat Lion said...

I worked on implementing a red light camera program in Australia. We evaluted the results using statistical analysis independently reviewed by academic researchers. The conclusion was clearly an improvement in safety (fatalities and injuries avoided vs additional injuries from rear end collisions were weighted according to economic costs associated with each).

Interestingly we found the benefits accrued whether the box contained a camera or not and settled on a 1:10 ratio of cameras to boxes, randomly rotated using a computer generated schedule. Pretty convincing evidence that we weren't trying to maximise revenue.

Some important differences allowed us to avoid the moral hazards you point to. The program is run by police, not by outsourcers who have an incentive to maximise revenue and traffic enforcement is a State responsibility so there's a consistent approach.

I'm afraid I don't have much sympathy for the arguments about reasons why people can't stop at red lights. You need to drive so that you can. If the pavement is wet, slow down. If there's a truck in front of you, don't tailgate etc.

Mike said...

http://mdahmus.thebaba.com/blog/archives/000248.html

(tried to post here; server is crashing).

Scott Henson said...

Nobody here argued that people "can't stop at red lights." That's a BS red herring, IMO. Also if the number of accidents in the Australia study increased and you weighted the results using an economic forumula to justify the outcome, then your results match up with the US studies -- red light cameras increased the overall number of accidents.

There are many traffic engineering solutions to solve side impact accidents, but virtually none that will stop rear-enders. Red light cameras create more problems than they solve. Just lengthening yellow times by 1.5 seconds would do more to reduce accidents than any camera scheme, according to TXDoT traffic engineers who testified at the Lege.

Most people run red lights by accident, not out of malice. Prevention, not punishment, is the public policy approach that best matches the circumstance.

Finally, it seems impossible to me given the public pronouncements of various officials that anyone would claim revenue generation isn't the primary motive for Texas cities implementing red light cameras -- they all say so, and they refused a compromise at the Lege whereby they could put up the cameras for safety reasons but the money would go for schoolkids. If safety were the motive, they should have been fine with that.

Thanks for commenting, even if we disagree on this one.

Anonymous said...

Just buy a can of spray that obscures you plate to a "camera." One such sight sells such a thing, www.phantomplate.com.

I'm sure that most state laws require that you don't obscure your license plate from view of a "police officer or citizen." I bet there is no law that says you can't "hinder" your license plate from a camera? At least yet that is.

Anonymous said...

The common folk can defeate this if they have the will. Simply adopt a policy of one car per lane per green light.

This will snarl traffic immediately, requiring every such intersection to station a traffic control officer to override the lights.

Be sure to snap pictures of the officer to document the fact that the signals are overridden.

Sure, the economy will grind to halt, but the fix is quick -- the Police Chief sending SWAT teams to take out the red light cameras.

Shaine Mata said...

I think the Australian example was a good one. He does agree that rear-endings and similar accidents increased, but "FATALITIES and INJURIES AVOIDED vs additional injuries from rear end collisions were weighted according to economic costs associated with each".

The argument of equal protection under the law when weighing the guaranteed $75 fine versus a POSSIBLE $200 fine has one shortcoming, these are punishments, not protections. Whether it's a $75 fine or a $200 fine, the PUBLIC is equally protected by keeping inconsiderate drivers from running red lights in general. That's equal protection. So, it causes a few fender benders. It also helps save lives and serious injuries.

In an accident, you take your car to the shop and it's fixed. One-time expense and it's over. People, on the other hand, may require hospitalization, home health care, physical therapy, or any combination of these for months. Not to mention lost wages and productivity.

Anonymous said...

Is this the Australian study you're talking about? This one says there was no demonstrated safety benefit to RLCs in Australia looking at all accident data over ten years.

Mase said...

Most people run red lights by accident, not out of malice. Prevention, not punishment, is the public policy approach that best matches the circumstance.

If "by accident" you mean "negligent" (whether talking on a cell phone, not paying adequate attention), I'd agree.

The best possible situation (which is least likely, I admit) is that red light cameras would come with a lengthened yellow light time. However, I do not really have any problem with red light cameras as T-Bone accidents (and car vs. pedestrian) are worse then rear-end collisions. The former (T-Bone & car/pedestrian) are reduced with cameras, though the latter (readends) do increase.

As for the revenue argument, that is the biggest BS of all. So the state can make money off law violators. So what? A tax on bad activity (as opposed to a criminal ticket) should be preferred by people, as a civil ticket will unlikely increase their insurance, while a criminal ticket almost assuredly will. As long as the yellow light time is not decreased (which, admittedly, has happened places, to the federal minimum time), I fully support the cameras.

kaptinemo said...

Mase, if I've learned anything about government, it's this: power surrendered to government is always abused.

The aformentioned reduced amber light time? Why do you think that was done? Certainly not to enhance public safety, but to enact what amounts to a hidden tax upon motorists that would not have to be justified in the usual way, with debates during legislation to argue the pros and cons. It is, philosophically, no different than the so-called 'civil forfeiture' of property in drug cases. It's purpose is to circumvent the 'untidy' aspects of calling for public participation in that debate.

You'll please note that most such legislation is not being demanded by the motoring public, but almost always is the brainchild of avarice-driven pols and their special interest supporters and is imposed upon a public too busy to keep close watch on the scheming being perpetrated in their various local and State governments. To put it bluntly, how many people do you know who have publicly admitted to writing to their Representatives in favor of such de facto self-punishment?

I don't know of any in my neck of the woods, yet, despite the logical arguments made against their deployment (which were later vindicated with many of those camera-induced rear-endings)...there are the cameras.

Hope said...

Kaptinemo said, "...despite the logical arguments made against their deployment (which were later vindicated with many of those camera-induced rear-endings)...there are the cameras."

You can't stop a politician when he or she sees a dollar sign. Dollar signs in their eyes is all too often what it's about...not logic or actual safety. Sure…they say it's your safety…but I think it's about something else, too.

Government has to have money to operate...but when government is about generating money, the citizens become the possessions of a powerful, consuming government and not the citizens in possession and control of a sensible government.

We have been so assaulted by misgoverning and forcibly controlled by government to such an extent and for so long now, that many Americans today can accept that their own bodies…and even their children…actually somehow belong to the government. Do we exist as drones for the state and that's all? The gigantic, all-powerful government bureaucracy just lets us use these things…which belong to them, at their pleasure…as a privilege given us by them... the state?

What is wrong with us? How did it come to this?

It sounds like I'm talking about more than red light cameras, doesn't it? I guess I am.

Red light cameras are a small thing. One roach and one flea and one mouse in the house are small things, too.

eliz. s. said...

Scott - I included this in the best of Austin blog posts this week at Austinist.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

thanks, e! sh

Steamboat Lion said...

In response Scott's response to my comments - I'm not sure we are disagreeing. I wouldn't support RLCs the way they are implemented in Texas either. I was just pointing out that it is possible to implement them in a way that does improve road safety and avoids various moral hazards.

Which brings me to the link to an Australian study posted by anonymous. No thats' not the study I was involved in. That's based on the program in the State of Victoria - my experience was in Queensland. The major fault that the study points out is that many of the intersections where Victoria installed cameras had very low side impact collisions to begin with. Not surprising that there was no statistically significant reduction. We avoided that problem by very careful targeting of intersections that did have a big problem. Which is why we only had 80 sites in the entire State.

To elaborate on weighting different types of accidents. Side impacts are much more likely to involve fatalities and serious injuries than rear enders. How do you decide how many additional cases of whiplash are worth a fatality avoided? Economic cost is not perfect but it is objective.

You can reduce the increase in rear enders by careful design. As pointed out by others, the length of the yellow cycle is important and we had complete control over that Statewide. You can also configure the time threshold. In Queensland you only get photographed if you ENTER the intersection 2 seconds AFTER the light has turned red. Doesn't sound like much, but go out to a busy intersection with a stopwatch and you'll soon agree how dangerous that is.

And you always have the option of telling your story to a magistrate (judge). Funny how most people just pay the fine though when you give them that option.

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Anonymous said...

Good post, and I agree with most of it. However, the increase in accidents is more likely due to the morons that drive too close to the car in front of them and would have run the red-light anyway. I do not run red-lights, and have never received a citation. I like the cameras, but maybe that's because I am not a constant red-light offender. I think the only reason the Texas Legislature is attempting to restrict the use of the cameras is because they haven't figured out how to take their cut of the profits.