Monday, December 14, 2009

Duncanville's million dollar camera: Tribune expose' details red-light ticket revenue

I mostly quit tracking minutiae regarding red-light cameras after I left the ACLU of Texas and nobody was paying me to follow what had become a hydra-headed, locally-driven mass expansion of surveillance cameras and electronically generated tickets. Since then, the number of red-light cameras throughout the state has exploded, as has the revenue local governments derive from them.

The Texas Tribune has put together a terriffic interactive database on Texas red light cameras that constitutes what IMO is their best piece of web journalism since launching the online, nonprofit news site. I've been waiting for the Tribune's journalism to go beyond academic descriptions of the process and force itself inexorably into the public debate, which this project definitely does. (Congrats to Matt Stiles and others involved.) I'd expect local newspapers and TV stations around the state to pick up the Tribune's information and localize stories for their own audiences - as well they should. And when pols, state and local, get around to debating red-light cameras, the Tribune data will for sure be a central part of the debate. Elise Hu points out this TV news piece out of Dallas that shows how easily the story can be localized:

Go here to see their interactive package and look up red light camera sites and data from your home area.

The top revenue-generating red light camera in Texas is in Duncanville, where one camera generated tickets totaling more than $1,000,000. Statewide, thirty individual red-light cameras generated more than $500,000 in revenue each during the year analyzed by the Tribune, and there appears to be little connection between the number of citations given and the number of crashes at a particular intersection.

In Austin, the two intersections with the highest revenue totals happen to be the ones closest to my house: At the intersections of I-35 and 11th Street and I-35 and 15th. At both of these, particularly at 15th Street, the red-light cameras are IMO likely taking advantage of traffic engineering flaws that notoriously strand drivers in mid-intersection when the traffic-light changes (there's an awkward, quick merge there from IH-35 where drivers must criss-cross to get where they need to be before the light). FWIW, those intersections are also essentially gateways into central East Austin with it's disproprotionately minority population, which means that's mostly who the city is mulcting these fines from.

Which brings me to my main, personal beef with red-light cameras: Better safety outcomes may be achieved with no fines or surveillance cameras simply by lengthening yellow-light times and other traffic engineering solutions. The Lege should require longer minimum yellow-light times at intersections where red-light cameras go up. If they did, I bet you wouldn't have any million-dollar traffic cams like the one up in Duncanville. Seeing these data reinforce my belief that the main motive for installing red-light cameras is revenue-generation, not public safety.


Charlie O said...

You bet your ass redlight cameras are ALL about revenue generation and nothing whatsoever to do with safety. The same thing goes for seat belt and helmet laws. The government (and especially law enforcement) don't give two craps about whether you and I live or die. It all about how much money can they pick from our wallets before we do (die).

Anonymous said...

After a 10 year debate they are now installing the cameras in my city (not in Texas), although only at 12 of the deadliest intersections. At this point the program is still in a trial period and they are only mailing out warning tickets for a few months to give everyone a heads up grace period.

I'm a full-time pedestrian - I don't own a car and I use public transportation exclusively. I live within a few blocks of one of these deadly intersections and I'm all for enforcement by any means.

As I travel to and from work or doing errands I see what I can only describe as deliberate flaunting of traffic laws; people running red lights three or four seconds after the signal change and exceeding the speed limit by 20 mph to do it.

Several times a year there are people killed or maimed by this senseless mindset, pedestrians who or in the crosswalk and crossing with the light.

The worst that ever happens to these drivers is they get a $250 ticket for careless driving and are exposed to civil damages. Big deal.

These people ought to be charged with manslaughter if found to be at fault.

I find it to be ironic as hell that the "tuff on crime" crowd are the ones mostly bitching about cameras.

Don't run red lights and don't block the box and you won't have anything to worry about.

Anonymous said...

Anon, clearly you are only familiar with the brochure description of the red-light cameras. In practice the deadly intersection near your home will actually become more dangerous due to drivers watching for the yellow as opposed to anything else. The city won't be able to clean the pedestrians off the pavement fast enough. More experienced drivers will merely circumvent the cameras by driving full speed through nearby residential neighborhoods.

Let me correct your closing statement:
"Don't approach a green light within fifteen seconds of a yellow, turn right on red, yellow or within fifteen seconds of a yellow on green, and anticipate at any moment one of the three cars in front of you will nail the brakes and you'll be all right"

I hope you don't depend on any retail near that intersection; it will be gone in a year.

Anonymous said...

15 reasons to oppose photo radar:

Cory said...

I have to just chime in and say that red light cameras were a SAVIOR in my neighborhood. I used to live on Westheimer in Houston when they started going up.

Initially I was 100% against them, quickly singing along with everyone in the "just to make money" camp and adding a lot of "big brother". I was very vocal about my opposition. I didn't believe they would work, I thought it was just cheap tactics to make the city money, and just another way of domestic spying.

In practice, though, the cameras ABSOLUTELY cut down redlight running. Before the cameras went up, red lights were a joke in my neighborhood. People would continue running the light until at least 5-7 seconds after turning red. Then the people waiting for them to finish running the light, would follow suit out of aggravation and run their own red light, and so on, and so on. When a light turned green, it meant you better wait about 4 seconds to see if someone would come zooming through at 70mph. Accidents were a daily occurrence. I thought the cameras wouldn't work because the people in my area were just patently retarded, and of course everyone knows Houston drivers are the worst in America!

When the cameras went up though, OH MY GOD, the difference was like NIGHT AND DAY within a month or so. I swear to you red light running went from happening at 85% of all red lights, to about 10%. I went from being staunchly opposed, to realizing maybe there is some value.

That said, there are many areas where the cameras are going up that do NOT need them. My section of town was a particularly dangerous one to drive in, and the cameras did help, but in other areas (notably suburban areas) there were not the serious problems of my area. I saw a report that showed that accidents in these areas actually went UP after the cameras went in! (where the same report showed that accidents in my area went way down)

I think the cameras can be a good thing, as long as steps are taken to make sure the city isn't over-exploiting them for money, and we have to be careful about how valid they are in unrelated crimes. But when it comes to stepping up the police state, and increasing revenue, it is very difficult for the government to know moderation.

Anonymous said...

My experience is a $75 fine for stopping at a red light and then making a right turn. My crime was letting my front tires cross the white line before coming to a complete stop. When I called about it I was told that the officer had signed off on it and I would have to go before the judge to clear it. It would have cost me more to do that than pay the fine, which I'm sure they're counting on. I returned to that intersection and stopped at the line. I could not see past the cars in the left hand lanes to see if I could make a safe right turn. So now I stop at all red lights and don't make right on red turns. Sorry to all of you stuck behind me. This exact scenario happened to the friend I was visiting in that neighborhood. The whole thing is a mess, just like the entire Texas legal system.

Anonymous said...

The million dollar intersection in Duncanville is just bad intersection design. The money on "red-light" tickets is most assuredly coming from folks traveling east on Danieldale and turning right.

Go check out the intersection in Google Maps, on the street view. Danieldale is intersected at a serious angle by US-67, and the angle of the intersection is such that those looking to make a right turn are positioned further back, east-west, than those in the lanes to their left. Further, the angle of the intersection is such that, at the line where a driver is supposed to stop, you can't fully see the oncoming traffic from the spot where you're required to stop.

Given these factors, to get a good view of oncoming traffic, you need to pull up slightly beyond the line where the red-light camera allows, and you get nailed with a ticket. I can confidently say this as someone who lived near that intersection for quite some time, having learned how to drive on the local streets in that vicinity.

There's another red light camera on the other side of US-67 at Danieldale. The one on the Southbound frontage road is the 1 million dollar camera. The one on the Northbound frontage road, however, where road conditions are reversed, with people heading westbound making right turns are set out in front of the traffic in the lanes to the left, generates only $300,000.

Sure, you can argue about traffic patterns and whatnot, but the real reason is that the Danieldale/67-North interchange is better designed than Danieldale/67-South.

Deb said...

"the main motive for installing red-light cameras is revenue-generation, not public safety."

Damn straight.

Austin is barely making money (2 intersections bringing in the dough--the 11th/35 one is taking pictures of -careful- right on reds and more legal actions), but our City Council, specifically Cmbr Martinez, is way too proud to admit they were wrong and wouldn't dare risk the appearance of "money 1st, safety 2nd" by canceling them like other cities have where they've lost/not made $.

Notice there has been no discussion about expanding it here, as was the original plan.

Deb said...

11:10: "It would have cost me more to do that than pay the fine, which I'm sure they're counting on."


Fight on principal people!

R. Shackleford said...

It's all about the money. But let's be honest here, most things involving the government are these days. Leos are just revenue collectors for the state, as are the cameras and various other "safety first" schemes. It sickens me.

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