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.