State Senate Debates the Future of Red Light Cameras

Opinion was mixed as the Texas Senate Transportation Commission heard its first testimony on a proposal to ban red light cameras, with motorists geneally urging the cameras be outlawed, and cities which use them arguing that they be preserved, News Radio 1200 WOAI reports.

The cameras, which photograph the license plates of vehicles running through red lights at intersections and then mail a 'civil fine' ticket to the car's owner, have long been a source of contention, with several previous attempts to banish them failing in the Legislature.

Motorists complain that getting a ticket in the mail violates their Fourth Amendment rights to confront their accuser, and say the cameras are unfair because the vehicle owner is ticketed, even if somebody else is driving. They also cite several studies which claim that, rather than reducing accidents, as supporters claim, red light cameras contribute to deadly rear end collisions, because a motorist gets halfway into the intersection, notices the red light camera, and slams on the brakes, and is hit by the vehicle behind who can't stop that quickly.

Opponents also complain that the cameras are simply a sneaky way for local governments to pick the pockets of motorists. Since most cameras are operated by private vendors who take a percentage of the ticket revenue, they also say this is private business profiting off of low income motorists who are simply trying to get to work to feed their families.

But communities which have employed red light cameras for up to a decade, mainly suburbs which lie along heavily traveled arterial roads into big cities, say red light cameras are simply a new technology, like radar to stop speeders or police radios to speed officers to the scene. They say you have no Constitutional right to run a red lights, and the cameras allow the geneally small police departments of the suburbs to concentrate on crimes other than traffic enforcement.

That was the argument the Leon Valley Police Chief Joseph Salvaggio gave to the committee.

"94% of the people who got a citation this first year, did not get a second one," he said. "You can't tell me behavior is not changing when we don't see that recidivism rate."

As to the people who complain that the ticket goes to the owner and not the driver, Salvaggio pointed out that parking tickets for decades have been handed out to the owner of the improperly parked vehicle, not to the driver who parked it there, and no Fourth Amendment issues have been raised about parking tickets.

Anna Lyons of AAA Texas says the cameras are needed, because too many people run red lights.

"42% of drivers in the study said, in the last thirty days, they have driven through a stop light, when they could have stopped," she said.

Lyons added that accidents at intersections also caused delays for other drivers and tie up more police time, taking officers off safety programs and prevent them from investigating crimes.

But a long line of motorists urged the committee to give the cameras the boot.

"Contrary to what the cameras companies and their buisness partners will tell you, red light cameras have made the intersections that I drive through more dangerous," Kelly Cook told the committee. "Maybe that's because they shortened the yellow light time when the cameras were installed."

That is a complaint against local governments that has been made for years, that the time the stop light is on the yellow cycle is shorter at red light camera intersections, a charge local governments deny.

A significant difference exists between red light camera ban bills being considered in the Senate and the House. The Senate bill includes a 'grandfather clause' which allows cities which have contracts with private vendors to operate red light cameras to keep the cameras in place until the contract expires.

The House bill demands that the cameras be removed immediately, on the argument that the cities should have known that the camera issue was being considered by the Legislature, and should have included what is called a 'force majeuere' clause in the contracts, which lets the communities get out of the contracts if a 'higher power beyond its control,' in this case the Legislature, outlaws the cameras.

Another issue being debated is that some of the money raised through red light camera tickets is designated to go toward reimbursing hospitals for trauma care, money that would have to be recovered from some other source if the red light cameras are outlawed.


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