December 04, 2004
Red light!

The City of Houston is one step closer to installing cameras on several high-accident intersections in order to catch those who run red lights.

Houston City Attorney Arturo Michel said Friday that the city has concluded it can issue civil citations, even though the Texas Legislature overwhelmingly voted in 2003 to deny cities the power to issue criminal citations based on camera enforcement.

Michel's ruling paves the way for the City Council to vote on whether to install cameras at intersections with high accident rates. The council is expected to vote on the matter Dec. 15, and the cameras could be in place two months after that, officials said.


In September 2003, the Dallas suburb of Garland became the first municipality in Texas to install cameras at traffic lights, citing violators for the civil violation of being inside an intersection during a red light rather than the state-regulated criminal violation of running a red light.

Houston plans to follow the same strategy, Michel said.


Houston's current standard criminal fine for running a red light is $215, and the proposed civil fine would be $75. The civil violations would be assessed against the owner of the vehicle, regardless of who drove the car through the red light.

Question: So, if your spouse/child/buddy/whatever has borrowed your car and gets nailed by one of these cameras for running a red light, does that add points to your license? Will your insurance company find out about it and get to jack up your rates? Can you still take Defensive Driving to dismiss one of these? What court will handle the processing of these citations? OK, that's more than one question. Anyone have any answers?

There are of course privacy concerns, and the issue of a private subcontractor jigging things to create more tickets (since they get a slice of the revenue) and boost their profits. I share those concerns, but it is hard to argue with Mayor White's statement that "no one has a right to run a red light". Put me in the opposition camp for now, but I want to know the details of the implementation before I commit.

One thing I definitely have a quibble with:

"The Houston Police Department last year recorded more than 5,000 accidents caused by motorists running red lights," said Mayor Bill White, who wants to install the cameras. "People overwhelmingly in our community complain about the lack of enforcement at red lights. It's a better idea to use technology rather than taking police officers out of patrols to sit at intersections."

In the past year, the Traffic Enforcement division of HPD has taken up fairly regular residence at the intersection of I-10 and Studemont. Two or three officers sit there with radar guns, catching people who exceed the 35 MPH limit on the service road. I'm not sure why this has been one of their preferred speed traps lately, but they're there. If it's a good idea to use these officers to catch speeders on a fairly accident-free stretch of road like that, then I fail to see what's so wrong with having them stake out San Felipe and the West Loop service road, which is listed first in the sidebar as being a possible camera site because of its high collision rate.

(I should note, before Michael or Ginger leave a comment, that the actual intersection of the I-10 service road and Studemont does see its share of crashes. Since it's a T-intersection (the service road terminates at Studemont), it's not really speeding that's the main cause, though; it's - wait for it - red light runners.)

Fritz Schranck has some experience with traffic light cameras as part of his job with the state of Delaware. He writes about it here and here. The first one in particular has a perspective not really explored in the Chron story. Check them out.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on December 04, 2004 to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles | TrackBack

I lobbied some against this bill in the Lege last year on behalf of ACLU, and I predict the Legislature may restrict what Houston wants to do this session, since they're sliding through a loophole the Lege clearly didn't intend.

As to your questions:

So, if your spouse/child/buddy/whatever has borrowed your car and gets nailed by one of these cameras for running a red light, does that add points to your license?

Yes, the owner of the car gets the ticket. The more interesting legal question is what happens when you run a red light in a rental car? Answer: nobody knows.

Will your insurance company find out about it and get to jack up your rates?


Can you still take Defensive Driving to dismiss one of these?

Not under current law; that only applies to tickets that are criminal penalties.

What court will handle the processing of these citations?

They'll be processed similarly to parking tickets, which are also civil fines.

Bottom line: Ticketing doesn't stop red light runners, just punishes them afterward, unless you're driving dad's car, or a rental. State of the art traffic safety systems, though, rely on other methods like traffic circles and speed bumps to regulate dangerous behavior, instead of 'gotcha' traffic enforcement techniques that are essentially revenue generators, not safety enhancements. And that doesn't even get to the privacy stuff -- these cameras have zoom lenses, and often can be turned to look into buildings and at pedestrians along the roadside in addition to monitoring traffic.

I'd encourage you to stick in the opposition camp.

Posted by: Scott on December 4, 2004 2:25 PM

Mark me in the FOR category. I'm sorry but I just don't see the privacy issue.

The cameras don't require pan or zoom capability so I don't see any reason to just ensure they don't have it. But even if they do, if you were ticketed "the old fashioned way" the officer would get a much better look inside your vehicle than any camera could.

Far too many Houstonians have become nonchalant about running red lights IMO and it's a serious hazard to motorists.

As to the owner of the vehicle getting the ticket, they're liable. If they don't want tickets they should be extremely careful about who they let drive their cars.

For rental cars its a simple answer. The same used now on drivers in rentals running the EZ-Tag lane without a tag. The rental agency bills back the rentor at the time of the incident.

Posted by: Davebo on December 4, 2004 6:33 PM

Ahem. You may remember that we have strong opinions about people running that light, too. I'd much rather see them nail red-light runners than speeders.

Speaking of cameras, when we came in from shopping this evening, I saw a car parked on the street with one of those license-plate covers that blurs the number. I bet those become really popular if the cameras take off in Houston.

Posted by: Ginger on December 4, 2004 8:59 PM

If it's possible that the registered owner of the vehicle could get the ticket, the points and the insurance surcharge without sufficient proof that they were behind the wheel, then I'm opposed to it, *period*. Seems like a complete and utter lack of "due process" to me -- and since these are civil infractions and not criminal charges, the usual Constitutional protections likely don't apply (i.e. the city doesn't have to establish that the owner was also the driver beyond a reasonable doubt).

Since I came to Houston in May 2003, I've noticed that it has the shortest green left arrows of ANY place I've ever driven. And not coincidentally, IMO, the red light runners seem to be worst where the green is ridiculously short.

It's not unusual at many, if not most, intersections for only 3-4 vehicles to turn on the left arrow before it turns red. And since most left turn lanes have more vehicles queued up than that and it will often be minutes before the next green, the urge to run the red grows. Most of the blatant red light running I see are on left turns at those ridiculously short greens.

If the city were serious about reducing red light running, it would also work on some of the root causes (poorly timed lights with very short greens and excessive wait times between greens) that discourage blowing past stale yellow and newly red lights. But that wouldn't generate revenue like cameras, so I doubt that one is one the table. If they improved signal timing and fixed the really short greens with the money generated by red light runners busted on camera, I might be a little less opposed to the idea. But does anyone really expect that this is nothing more than revenue generation being sold to the public in the grounds of safety?

Posted by: Tim on December 5, 2004 9:11 AM

A small but growing portion of my spam is for red-light camera avoidance technology.

...being inside an intersection during a red light
Now that's just poorly worded. Unless the intersection is designed to be as dangerous as possible, everyone in an intersection with a light is inside an intersection during a red light.

Meh. I'm opposed. There are many crimes that could be prosecuted by placing cameras in places they're likely to be committed and reviewing the tapes, but I'm personally not in favor of the practice. We could penalize people for making illegal left turns on Main Street. We could penalize illegal sodomy in the mens room at Hermann Park. We could penalize illegal campaign contributions in the halls of the statehouse. We could penalize those who take 11 items into the "10 items or less" line at Kroger.

But really, I hope we don't. Even if it's good to penalize that kind of activity, it's a worse harm to our society to record all activity in public places and prosecute transgressors. I think that assuming criminality without reasonable cause is not a precedent I want to encourage.

I don't even want to have the state (er, 'municipality') tape the intersections so that they can review the scene to determine fault in accidents. It's too open to abuse. Given the ease with which our voting machines can be tampered with, what's to prevent photoshopping a red light into a frame and prosecuting on the basis of it? Nothing, except the courts trust that the police won't do it.

All told, a bad idea.

Posted by: Michael on December 5, 2004 9:35 AM

Can't speak for Houston, but here in Garland, getting a "photo ticket" does not add points to your driving record. I suspect Houston is the same because Garland cited the lower standard of proof for the reason for this grace.

Of course, that doesn't mean that your insurance company won't raise your rates anyway if they find out about it, but it probably is less likely they'll find out about it in the first place.

I still oppose red-light cameras on privacy grounds, but at least there's that mitigating factor.

But even if they do, if you were ticketed "the old fashioned way" the officer would get a much better look inside your vehicle than any camera could.

Yes, but the officer is only looking inside the vehicles he stops! There's nothing to prevent the camera from looking inside every vehicle when Houston decides to expand the cameras' use, as they eventually will.

If they don't want tickets they should be extremely careful about who they let drive their cars.

Look, I agree that red-light running is a serious problem, but you're proposing to dismiss basic fairness in the name of a rather ineffective solution. What if someone don't even live anywhere near Houston and doesn't read this blog, so they don't know Houston will try to hold them liable for the actions of another driver who runs a red light passing through Houston?

Fortunately, the photos show the driver, so if it's not you, you should be able to get the case dismissed. But, you still have to take time off to go to court, etc.

We could penalize illegal sodomy in the mens room at Hermann Park.

Only after Shrub fixes the Supreme court so they overturn Lawrence v. Texas. Sodomy is legal until then ;-)

Posted by: Mathwiz on December 6, 2004 2:57 PM

as a grandmother of a child who died due to a negligent driver running a red light, my concern is the fact that the person only recieved a ticket. $75.00 dollars is insane! there needs to be a higher consequence for people who run red lights. no one should have to lose there life because someone was in a hurry, or just not paying attention. if people would just obey the laws of driving, extra measures would not have to be taken. but since people do as they please, they should pay for their actions accordingly. jazmine was 11 days shy of her 3rd birthday when she died. it was also her little sisters 1st birthday. i hope that no one will ever have to go through what our family has had to. that man changed our lives forever because of his actions. and i wonder if it even bothers him at all. we as a society should demand changes in the law regarding people who run red lights and the aftermath they leave behind.

Posted by: gena on January 23, 2005 7:06 PM

There are two points to consider before having a workable system.

a) IF, the camera system took two pictures then this program would be more practical.

The first light would be taken at all times as the lights are in transition from yellow to red. The trigger is the timing of the yellow light (so many seconds before red it snaps) if there is no after red movement, then this picture is discarded.

In the event that there is movement after the light turns red, then keep both pictures.

The first picture will identify what is happening in the intersection a second or two prior light change and then a second picture of the actual incident of the running of the light.

In this case it would be obvious if someone simply ran a light or if there was some obstacle or occurrence that created a situation wherein leaving the last person entering the intersection (during yellow) to be the one caught in the middle of the intersection as the light changes to red.


b) The length of time that lights are on varies drastically across town and from intersection to intersection. They need to be standardized (within the realm of day/night traffic and that of rush hour / after hours traffic flow.

The intersection of Westheimer/Wilcrest (west bound turning south) has had a 2 (two) second green turn for years. The lights either side are 8 (eight) second. A two second light is simply not adequate time for more than ONE vehicle at a time to pass through an intersection.

Someone needs to setup a website and collect a LONG list of complaints regarding short-lights.

The CITY needs to cleanup its current problems before adding band-aids.

Posted by: charles sterling on January 26, 2005 6:49 PM

I received a ticket the other day in the mail and it is just insane, I never run red light and there are times I do let people borrow my car and it is people I am close to also people I work with but my problem is the ticket was dated in early June and I am just getting this ticket a month 1/2 later and I am suppose to remember who was borrow my car or there was any reson behind this. So I don't want it to go on my record and I don't know who was driving my car either so either way it soulds like I am getting screwed either way. What do you do in those cases, I don't want to take off of work for this, due to the fact I have other scheduled days to take off with the family and other appointments I don't have the time to go take off for something I can't remember a month 1/2 ago.. What do I do about this or is there other options on this situations.Please Help...

Posted by: Lisa on August 30, 2005 2:55 PM

Has anyone actually fought one of these tickets? Has anyone found out whether it goes on your record, and effects your insurance?

Posted by: Doug on January 15, 2007 3:18 PM