Metropolis: Wednesday, June 08, 2005
Garland officials say cameras like this one — the vertical gray box to the right of the traffic lights — are reducing accidents and making money. (Photo by Pablo Lastra)
‘... if you are increasing the number of times ambulances are required to respond to traffic accidents, it’s a bad call.’
Red-Light District

Fort Worth drivers could find their traffic transgressions caught on camera.


If a driver runs a red light and no one sees it, is it a violation? It could be soon, if some members of the Fort Worth City Council have their way.
Council members Chuck Silcox and Becky Haskin want to install red-light cameras at several Fort Worth intersections. The devices photograph the rear license plates of vehicles that fail to stop for red lights, and the owners receive citations in the mail.
Silcox said the issue won’t come up for a vote right away because the council and its new members are facing more pressing issues, like a $7 million budget shortfall. However, he said, in the long run, “Why shouldn’t we do it? It’s an issue of protecting the people who obey the law.”
Scott Henson, director of the Texas Police Accountability Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, disagrees. “This is all about money,” he said. He pointed to other alternatives to reduce red-light accidents, such as lengthening the time period for yellow lights. And he said that some studies show that red-light cameras may actually cause an increase in traffic accidents. What’s more, in San Diego, the cameras led to a lawsuit over mis-timed lights and to the dismissal of hundreds of tickets.
For now, Garland is the only Texas city with operational red-light cameras. But several other cities are looking at the technology. Frisco, Richardson, and Denton all have passed ordinances that would permit the issuance of civil citations — like parking tickets — for those caught by cameras in the act of running a light. The camera-caught violations aren’t treated as criminal matters because the cameras, in general, record the vehicle, but not who was driving.
The Fort Worth Police traffic division endorses the program, according to Lt. Gary Gray. “Anything that will help us reduce our accident rate and protect the public, we’re for it,” he said. If the council approves the program, Gray said, the city would install as many as 10 cameras in the following six months at intersections with high accident rates, most of them downtown.
“I’ve seen as many as six cars go through an intersection on red,” Silcox said. “Unfortunately we have some citizens who are in too much of a hurry and don’t care to stop. For other drivers, it’s worse than Russian roulette, where at least you have a decision to pull the trigger.”
Fort Worth and the other cities, however, had to hold off on their camera projects until the Texas Legislature made some decisions this spring. Rep. Gary Elkins of Houston introduced three bills to ban or discourage the use of the devices, but none passed. One proposal would have allowed the cameras, but also mandated that cities make no more than $1 from each citation, taking revenue-raising out of the equation. In the Texas Senate, Rodney Ellis of Houston threatened to filibuster any bill that took away localities’ ability to install the cameras, which the City of Houston also wants. In the end, the bills got lost in the school-finance and budget debates.
A spokesman for Ellis said the senator is “pretty adamant about this issue. Red-light running is an epidemic in Houston, and Sen. Ellis believes the state shouldn’t be banning localities from doing this if they want.”
Henson doesn’t think the limited number of intersections with cameras will have a perceptible impact on red-light violations city-wide. “You can ticket people all you want, and it won’t change their attitude,” he said. “If it was about reducing red-light running, they could just make the yellow lights longer.”
A 2003 study by the Texas A&M Transportation Research Board concluded that increasing the duration of yellow lights at an intersection cut red-light violations in half. Another study released in April by the U.S. Department of Transportation found that red-light cameras offered only a modest increase in safety. The DOT report found that while some kinds of accidents declined at intersections equipped with cameras, the number of rear-end collisions increased because of more drivers stopping abruptly for red lights. The total number of accidents remained almost identical.
Gray said that rear-end collisions “are dependent on driver attention,” and that “in that particular scenario, the accident is not the fault of the person who stopped, but the person who was driving behind them. No wreck is a good wreck, but a side impact is worse than being rear-ended.”
In Virginia, the state legislature banned red-light cameras earlier this year after a Virginia DOT study showed the number of injuries from collisions at camera intersections actually went up as much as 24 percent as a result of the greater number of rear-end collisions. Henson said that “from a traffic management point of view, if you are increasing the number of times ambulances are required to respond to traffic accidents, it’s a bad call.”
Another objection is that the cameras raise privacy concerns, which Silcox dismissed. “If you’re worried that your picture was taken and that’s not your wife in the car, that’s not my problem,” he said. “When that S.O.B. runs the light and his bumper is on my car, that’s an invasion of my privacy.”
Henson said the only reason that cities are interested in the cameras is money. “The vendors are trying to sell their wares, and the cities see a big potential cash cow,” he said. “Every city council guy who ran on a no-new-taxes platform is looking for another way to raise revenue, and the cameras fit the bill. When you have a large subsection of the public who could be affected by something like this, there’s very little difference between raising money through red-light tickets and raising taxes.”
According to information provided by the City of Garland, its red-light camera program, dubbed SafeLight Garland, resulted in more than 29,000 citations at four intersections in just over a year, and two more cameras at other intersections have just been added. Accidents at intersections were reduced by 30 percent. The city pays a company — ACS — $5,600 a month for each camera. The fine for a camera-caught violation is $75, which means the city netted close to $2 million from the program in that period.
Garland officials also provided another fact sheet that cited statistics and gave several reasons why voters and legislators should oppose Rep. Elkins’ attempts to ban the cameras. That fact sheet wasn’t locally produced, however — it was compiled by the National Campaign to Stop Red Light Running. While it sounds like a grassroots citizens’ group, the organization is actually sponsored by ACS, Redflex, and Nestor, three vendors of red-light cameras. When cities install the cameras, they usually also agree to contracts that split the income from the red-light citations with the vendor (Garland does not).
In San Diego, which contracted with Lockheed Martin IMS, the city collected $271 for each citation, of which the vendor received $70. According to officials quoted by the San Diego Tribune, the city made $6.8 million from a single camera in 18 months. A class-action lawsuit, alleging that the city and Lockheed were manipulating the yellow lights to cause more “violations” and bring in more money, resulted in the suspension of San Diego’s red-light camera program in 2001. Shortly thereafter, ACS bought Lockheed Martin IMS for $825 million.
Silcox said he’s not interested in making money from the cameras and only wants the city to break even on the program. “It reminds me of the drunk-driving laws,” he said. “Back then we had a Bubba system, and people said ‘It’s my right to drink and drive.’ That’s bullshit. How do you tell the guy whose wife got killed that we didn’t use the technology that could have saved her life?”

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