Thursday, December 23, 2004

Bill To Kill Red-Light Cameras Filed

Nearly as soon as the Houston City Council approved installing red light cameras for giving tickets based on photos at city intersections, Harris County state representative Gary Elkins filed HB 259, which would repeal the city's authority to give "civil fines" for traffic infractions.

Houston Mayor Bill White says he's concerned with privacy, but offered the trite retort that no one has the right to run a red light. Neither, though, should the state have the right to accuse anyone of violating the law if they cannot face their accuser. Houston's experience with the EZ-Pass system shows that just because a picture has been taken doesn't mean that the person sent a ticket did anything wrong. Worse, White's dismissive comments ignore how the cameras would fit with other Big-Brotherish technologies like the biometric facial recognition systems the Texas Department of Public Safety wants to purchase.

Elkins prepared a press release when he filed the bill on Tuesday, but it has not been posted to his official state website. The temptation for cities to rely on red light cameras to generate revenue is too great, he said. "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."

"Cameras can't make judgment calls," Elkins continued. "They can't account for a driver trying to avoid an accident or for wet pavement. In other states there have been cases where vehicles involved in funeral processions were all mailed tickets even though police officers escorted the cars through red lights. "

In 2003, Texas legislators overwhelmingly voted down this idea in the form of H.B. 901, with 103 of 150 House members registering votes against giving red light tickets using cameras. Gary Elkins was a floor leader in that conflict, along with Rep. David Swinford from Dumas. After the bill was defeated, Rep. Harper-Brown, though, added sneaky, vague language to another bill allowing cities to use cameras for mulcting civil fines from drivers instead of criminal penalties. That language was approved without members knowing what they were voting on.

It will be fascinating to see whether that 103-vote majority bloc holds up -- it appears to be large enough to stand even if some members of the Houston delegation changed their votes, which would mean the City of Houston is wasting its money on the new equipment.

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