August 27, 2007
"Did not!" won't get you out of a red light camera ticket

This isn't a surprise, right?

Of the 111,000 people caught by red-light cameras in the city of Houston since September, only about 360 have challenged their citations, and only 78 were successful, court records show.

Court and police officials say several possible factors explain the reluctance to appeal and the low success rate. The key, they say, is that the images and video captured by the cameras, which drivers can watch online beforehand, can be precise and compelling in proving violations.

"Once the person sees the tape, they seem to be convinced," said the Municipal Courts' presiding judge, Berta Mejia.

I have not been caught by the red light cameras (my daily routines almost never take me through a camera-enabled intersection), but the parking lot where I work has cameras, and a year or so ago I got an email from our security department warning me that I had run a stop sign in the lot. I didn't think I'd done that, so I asked to see the tape. Sure enough, there it was, some very compelling video evidence of me roll-stopping through the sign. There really isn't much you can say other than "Sorry about that, won't do it again."

So I figure most people don't bother challenging the citation because they know good and well that they ran the light, as I think most of us do when it happens to us, and most of the rest of them see the evidence and realize they haven't a leg to stand on. Again, what are you going to say?

At least one critic, Houston lawyer Randall Kallinen, said most drivers probably choose to pay the civil penalty, which doesn't hurt their driving records, rather than hassle with a trip to the crowded and busy courts building at 1400 Lubbock.

"It's only $75, so how much trouble will a person go through?" said Kallinen, who has criticized the cameras before City Council.

"A lot of people won't go through the bother."

I'm sure that's true, too. I just figure that most of them, had they bothered, would have realized that they had wasted their time.

The most common appeal, a "general denial" of guilt, was the least successful. At least 170 motorists made this claim, and all but four were forced to pay the $75 fine. The most common reason for overturning a citation came when drivers proved that someone had stolen their vehicle. That happened at least 11 times, the records show.

Some succeeded by claiming the time of the yellow light was too short, or that their license plates had been stolen. Others convinced hearing officers that emergencies or other circumstances excused their actions.

"If they don't have the sufficient evidence, then they're probably not going to be found not liable," said Bonita Tolbert, an assistant director at Municipal Courts.

In a few cases, they succeeded by noting that glitches caused the wrong vehicle to be cited. And in at least one instance, someone who ran a light to keep pace with a funeral procession had a citation tossed.

There's one category of excuse here that I'd have expected to see but don't, which is "I got the ticket, but it was my spouse/my kid/my friend/my mechanic/someone else driving the car" excuse. My friend Dan got a ticket some months ago for an infraction committed by his mechanic, for instance. I suppose one reason why this isn't accounted for here is that in many cases, it's still a member of the same household who's responsible, and protesting that it should be your spouse or kid getting the ticket instead of you seems silly. Though I'm sure someone will do it if they haven't already.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on August 27, 2007 to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Doesn't the mail-in form have a thing that says "person XYZ was driving the car; either I have included payment from them or send the bill there"? Georgia's does.

Posted by: Nick Beaudrot on August 27, 2007 3:36 PM

When someone provides the name and address of the person who was driving the liability is transferred to that person. The number of people who appear is actually much larger but after viewing the video they go and pay the citation, so there is no need to find them liable.

Posted by: Manuel Barrera on August 27, 2007 8:46 PM

I'm the Dan in question, whose mechanic was clearly caught running a red light. Needless to say, everybody at the shop had a good laugh about it ("we watched the video over and over") and the shop paid the ticket on my behalf. If I recall correctly, there was no place to say "it wasn't me driving."

The only place where this could potentially be an issue for me would be if I (or my car without me) blew through several other red lights. At some point, the fines go up. Since I don't frequent the intersections with red light cameras, I decided it wasn't worth making a stink.

Posted by: Dan Wallach on August 27, 2007 10:56 PM