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On we go with the red light camera debate

The DMN has a story about the ongoing red light camera debate around the state. There’s a lot of familiar stuff in there, but this bit caught my eye:

While camera critics dispute the safety data, the money generated has raised even more questions and intrigue, especially as collections have pushed into the tens of millions. A 2007 state law requires cities to set aside half of all profits to help fund regional trauma care centers. Most cities use their share for traffic safety and enforcement efforts.

Houston police Sgt. Michael Muench, who oversees that city’s red-light camera program, said his department has plowed all revenues into crash-scene investigation equipment, extra traffic patrols, radar guns and other traffic-related improvements. “So far, it’s working,” Muench said. Critics point to large disparities in the profits cities generate as evidence that some are just out to make a buck.

“In College Station, cameras were not put at the most dangerous intersections, but the most profitable ones,” said Jim Ash, a sales representative who began the petition drive to take down the cameras there.

I don’t get that. The “most profitable” intersections would be those that have the most red light runners. Isn’t that exactly where you’d want to put the cameras? I guess you could have intersections with a lower violation rate but a higher accident rate. I don’t know what things are like in College Station but I can’t say I recall hearing that argument in Houston. What am I missing here?

I’ll be honest, I’ve never really understood the “it’s all about money” argument against red light cameras. I get the concerns about cameras in the public sphere, and the concerns about due process. I certainly agree that cities should not reduce yellow light intervals as a way to generate more violations, as Baytown admitted to doing last year. For sure, cities can get into trouble if they depend on red light camera revenue for their general funds, as happened to Dallas. Their contract with the camera company seems to be less favorable to them than some others; compare the revenue and expense data for Dallas and Houston in the DMN story, for example. Houston, as far as I can tell, has done a decent job with this, but it is a potential issue.

All of these things I understand. But when I hear complaints about profits and cash grabs and whatnot, my reaction is always the same: If people didn’t run red lights, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Everybody is fully capable of avoiding red light camera expenses. When I hear this argument, at least when I hear it in the absence of specific complaints about manipulated yellow light intervals or bad budget practices, what I hear is approximately “People should have the right to run red lights”. Maybe that says more about me than it does about the anti-camera position, but that’s where the camera opponents lose me.

The story notes that the anti-camera forces in Houston are preparing to announce that they have the signatures to force a vote on whether or not to ban the cameras this November. As things stand now, I don’t see any reason why I would vote for that proposition. Houston’s implementation seems to be working as intended, the contract is not onerous, and the revenue is being used appropriately. I’d like to see updated information about the violation and accident rates at the camera-enabled intersections, but I’d expect that to be part of the campaign for and against the proposition, so I can wait a little longer. One thing that could get me to change my mind would be evidence that camera data is being manipulated, as opponents in Baytown claim is happening there. Byron Schirmbeck, one of the leaders of the camera opposition in Baytown, sent me performance data for the cameras for March and April of this year, with the following explanation:

There are a few things to know about what is on the report. There is column A which is labeled “events” this is essentially each time that particular camera detects a violation of a steady red and forwards that to ATS for them to review. Column B is the total rejections, which would be for every reason, like they can’t see the plate clearly, there was glare in the camera, the camera malfunctioned etc, and anything that they declare as a “non violation” which is column C and accounts for the greatest number of the total rejections. Which would mean ATS reviewed the event and determined it to not be a violation for whatever reason. This is where the problem is: ATS, not the police department, has control over what they send to the PD without any oversight and any violation detected by the camera can be declared a “non violation” for any reason they see fit, including trying to manipulate the data. You could explain away a single digit variance for a couple of months, but you can’t explain away a 20% or more increase that continually grows to the point where nearly 6 out of 10 violations are declared to be “non violations”. The way I see it there are only 2 reasonable explanations possible, 1. ATS has deliberately thrown out tickets to make violations appear to have gone down in anticipation of a vote on the cameras, or 2. the cameras are detecting 20% more violations that really aren’t violations, which is alarming in itself as this makes one wonder about the integrity of the program. Why are the cameras doing that over several months each month? Who would get caught that shouldn’t have?

“ATS” is the camera vendor that has a contract to provide these services to Baytown. There may be a good answer for the questions that Schirbeck raises, but I’d want to know what it is before I’d endorse the Baytown program.

Anyway. There’s an accompanying story about how the business of red light cameras also means business for lobbying shops, as they try to fend off another attempt by the Lege to ban them. If that surprises you in any way, you would also probably be surprised by the news that it is currently hot and humid outside.

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  1. Ron in Houston says:

    I think it’s just too easy to say “don’t run red lights.” The problem I see is that not enough is done to make red lights work well for traffic control. If you’ve ever driven downtown and did the drive one block and stop routine about 4 times because of the idiot programming of the red lights you see why people will run red lights. I can understand an intersection having a large number of red light runners without having accidents. When a light is too short and causes traffic backups people get frustrated and want to try to get through it. If you’re on the other side, you see this happening and adjust for it.

    So, what the process on a referendum? Is there going to be an up or down vote on the ballot? I’m no big fan of the cameras but at least if it passed a vote I’d be more accepting.

  2. Martin says:

    People run red lights because they are either (i) not paying attention or (ii) impatient and feel like their time is more important than the safety of others. I work downtown and have no problem avoiding running red lights. Why? Because, when I do drive, I SLOW DOWN and don’t attempt to fly down Louisiana (or some similar street), without hitting a single light.

    I would also note that I often walk downtown and I can’t tell you how many times I have almost been hit by drivers who aren’t paying attention. People don’t stop at red lights in the right hand lane and automatically turn on the cross street, even when there are people walking in the cross walk. I’ve also almost been hit by people running red lights. In every other place I have lived in the country, it is the law for drivers to yield to pedestrians and that law is strictly enforced. Heavy fines and big time points are knocked against the drivers license. Here, apparently nobody cares.

    So I say bring on the red light cameras and expand them. People here are generally, very bad drivers and anything that may cause people to rethink their dangerous behavior (or even get some of these reckless maniacs off the street), I think is a good thing.

  3. Bluetexan says:

    I’m fine with red light cameras and the revenue they generate. If you don’t want to pay…don’t run the red light. Pretty simple. If our cities weren’t underfunded (due to constant tax cutting) and had plenty of revenue to spend, then we wouldn’t need them. The people complaining about the red light cameras are probably the same people that say we should cut all taxes. Where is the money going to come from folks? If you don’t want it coming out of your paycheck, or sales taxes, or property taxes…where else is it going to come from? I would be fine with speeding cameras too if they could actually make it work.

    That just gave me an idea…make driving so prohibitively expense to the rule breakers that they will start wanting to install rails so they don’t have to drive anymore! Genius!

  4. robert kane says:

    I have a couple of problems with them or more the process:

    1. The state law sets out a few guidelines before installing a red light camera at an intersection to see if it’s justified. The city is exempt from it because their contract was in place just before the state law went into affect. If the city really WANTED to play by the new rules they could… the only problem is they hide behind that exemption.

    2. A friend of mine was at an intersection, was rainy, the roads were wet, he saw someone starting to skid towards him from behind, he looked, there was no oncoming traffic so to be safe he went through the light. Got a ticket, went to dispute it at a hearing, his story aligned with what the cameras saw but the hearing officer said bottom line, he went through the red light, pay the fine.

    3. While I disputed a ticket that someone got while using my car (the 2nd stage in court) there was 1 guy that I totally sided with, an elderly man. He was at an intersection with a panhandler. He was afraid of what this guy was going to do as he approached his car, again, he assessed his situation and went through the light. Again, the cameras taped everything and it agreed with the drivers version. This time he was told the same thing as my friend by the hearing officer, you went through the red light, pay the fine.

    4. Look at where the red light cameras are, I haven’t in a while but when this was brought to my attention I found it curious. All the cameras are in lower to lower middle class neighborhoods. So this revenue is being generated by those least able to afford it and subsequently a tax of sorts by economic class. Since no studies are performed as to what intersections to place the cameras (as under the state law) we can’t say it’s because of accidents. I’m sure the wealthy neighborhoods have their violators too ( I heard the rich fart too by the way).

    5. Rolling right on red counts as running a red light too, I know people will say that’s as dangerous as running a red light, but it should be a case by case infraction using common sense if it was blatant enough to cause an accident.

    6. I’ve seen better looking red light camera in different parts of the country, may not seem like a big deal but some of the areas where they are getting traffic in every direction, they look ridiculous. I assure you the day they show up in Memorial, Upper Kirby or River Oaks…they will have the aesthetically pleasing ones, lol

    7. Like you stated, the state is supposed to use their portion of the money to set up trauma centers… the city should with hold that money putting it in an escrow fund to see it is addressed.

    Bottom line to me is the hearing officers and the Municipal Judges (appointed by the city) need to have the freedom to use common sense when hearing these cases, they don’t. They are daunted by the fear of being questioned why they dismissed tickets, the scales of justice are tipped in favor of the city, just not right.

  5. JohnStump says:

    @Martin People that turn right on red without coming to a complete stop are one of my biggest reasons for supporting the red light cameras. I really hope that cameras will trigger on this type of behavior because I find it extremely dangerous to pedestrians, especially children. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen kids in my neighborhood nearly run down by drivers not paying attention and just trying to make a right turn on red while the crosswalk says “walk”. I think if people get one or two tickets for doing this they will learn to stop and pay attention before running someone else’s children over.

  6. JohnStump says:

    Actually that last comment was directed towards “Robert Cane” not “Martin” although I have to say that I do completely agree with “Martin”.

  7. CRAIG says:

    Accidents DOUBLED at intersections with red light cameras. The CITY’S OWN STUDY done by Rice University showed this. The empirical data is clear – red light cameras have caused hundreds more accidents in the city of Houston.

    Yet the city is putting in more cameras. Do you think it is because the city has made over 30 million dollars from the cameras, profiting at the expense of public safety?

  8. Meather says:

    I looked at the Dallas Morning News article and noticed that something like $15 million of the fines collected went into paying for indigent care, trauma center fund and drivers safety education programs. Heck yeah! That’s what I’m talking about. All those programs were funded by tax dollars that I didn’t even contribute towards. In fact, these are the only programs I know of that one has the option of opting out of. When the red light asks if I’d like to run it, I just decline by waiting for the green light and POW! I’ve opted out of the tax.

    I’ve lived near red light camera intersections for years and I’ve never gotten a ticket. My secret is to pay attention, be courteous and drive safely.

  9. RyanBalstrap says:

    It makes sense to me that if we have the technology available to reduce the number of officers we have patrolling red lights waiting for violators, then we should be taking advantage of that. I see the population of the Houston area going in only one direction and unless we want to pay higher tax bills then it seems like a good solution is to free more of them up off of red light detail and place them on more serious tasks that could increase HPD response times.

  10. Martin says:


    Agree 100%. I see it all the time. Drivers come up the right hand lane and start to slow down (but not stop). The driver is looking left for oncoming traffic and doesn’t even check for pedestrians (i) crossing in front of them on a green WALK or (ii) crossing in the cross walk across the street they intend to turn onto. There have been so many situations where I have almost been hit under the first scenario that I now constantly watch the heads of drivers in the right lane as they approach the intersection I intend to cross. More than half the time they are looking left and roll across the cross walk and turn right. They are completely and utterly oblivious to pedestrians crossing in front of them that have the right of way. These people are going to seriously injure or kill someone.

    So complaint number (5) from Robert should be a ticket And frankly, if Robert thinks such an action is okay, he shouldn’t be driving.

  11. Charles, fair article as usual. First of all, I totally agree that people should follow the law and drive as safe as possible. We aren’t after letting red light runners get off, we drive these streets too. We are after the safest intersections with the strictest penalties for red light runners. A $75 optional civil fine with no penalty for not paying just doesn’t seem like an effective deterant to me. I honestly don’t understand how decriminalizing something is supposed to get less of that activity. When you boil it down the argument is really a quality over quantity argument. We all want red light runners to be punished but the idea behind the cameras is you send out a lot of low penalty civil violations to more people but those red light runners are still free to run red lights even if they ignore the ticket. I feel that red light runners should face a police officer that can look for illegal drugs or weapons, arrest warrants, expired licenses or insurance and issue a criminal ticket with the possibility of jailtime for not paying. Cameras haven’t taken any red light runners off the streets, but a traffic stop is one of the best ways cops have of interacting with the public, to set people on the right path or take them off the streets if they don’t change their behavior.

    When I say it is more about revenue than safety it means several things, it is definitely more about revenue than safety for the camera company that sold the system to the city. as with any corporation their first obligation is to turn a profit. And when that profit comes from more people running red lights there is an inherent conflict of interest there. If no one ran red lights anymore they would be out of business. We saw an example of this conflict of interest in league city, the camera company had to know that 518 and 45 had an illegally short yellow light when they evaluated the intersection, but instead of telling the city they should fix it first they recommended putting a camera there to capitalize on the already dangerous situation knowing that the short yellow light would mean more tickets and more revenue.

    It is a revenue decision to put up cameras when other more effective solutions like efficient signal timing and better engineered intersections are pushed aside because they cost money. If you decide not to implement a program that can reduce violations and accidents by 30-50% but costs money in favor of a system that may reduce accidents by 10% but brings money in how can that be anything other than a revenue decision? It certainly isn’t a safety decision. Baytown turned down a $10,000 bet from the national motorist association. They bet that they could reduce violations at any problem intersection with cameras the city chose by at least 50% just through engineering methods or pay the city $10,000. The only catch? The city would have to give up their camera program if they succeeded. If they really wanted to reduce violations why didn’t they take the bet?

    In Baytown, at least, it was a revenue decision to put up cameras instead of hiring more cops, we are still below the average of police officers for a city of our size and Baytown still does not have one single dedicated traffic patrol unit. All officers working traffic patrol are working overtime after their shifts or while they are regular patrol. We have the money to pay the cops more, they just expanded city hall and built a waterpark ut our cops are still underpaid.

    It was a revenue decision when Baytown decided to sign a contract a week before the new laws went into effect that would have required them to hire an engineer to do a study that would prove cameras were needed, had a citizen’s advisory panel agree they needed to install cameras and would have banned the per ticket bounty for the camera company. It was a revenue decision to allow the camera company to install cameras for free for a cut of every ticket they receive otherwise the city would have to pay a monthly fee for them. Since the camera company is footing the bill they get to decide where the cameras go. Are they going to choose an intersection that might have more accidents and fatalities but doesn’t have as high of a traffic flow? In at least one case, NO! of all of the intersections evaluated for installation of cameras there was only one that had a fatality in the last 3-5 years. The camera company didn’t recommend a camera there and the city went along with their recommendations. If safety was the primary goal wouldn’t you put a camera there first? That intersection finally got a camera just a couple of months ago, almost 2 years after the first cameras went up. The head of the camera program told me that the city wanted a camera at the fourth approach at Garth and Baker, but the cameras cost a lot of money and the evaluation showed it wouldn’t have been profitable to put a camera there so the camera company wouldn’t do it unless the city paid for it. They also installed 2 cameras along I-10 in Baytown where out of town visitors stop and get gas or get a hotel. How often do they come to Baytown? Isn’t that the modern day equivelant of a small town setting up a speed trap on a highway that goes through their town to boost revenue?

    My ultimate goal is to let the people have a voice on this issue, we didn’t find out about all of the problems with the cameras until after they had gone up, the council didn’t do their due diligence to fairly evaluate the program before they decided to implement it, instead they bought into a slick sales pitch. Based on everything I hear in Baytown the cameras will come down, but even if the citizens in Baytown vote that the cameras stay I still consider my efforts to have been worth it because I fought to hold the city accountable for their mistakes, made great improvements to the safety of our streets and let the city know we will not tolerate them making poor decisions about the program or shortening yellow lights and profiting off of it anymore.

  12. Stacey says:

    20 reasons to oppose photo radar. Includes accident data:

  13. Robert Nagle says:

    1. Before these red light cameras, were we facing an outbreak of people running red lights? In my experience, I haven’t seen much redlight running….

    2. There are reasons to run red lights on occasion. But the ticketing process makes it impossible for the ticket recipient to have a specific memory about the incident in question (which would be necessary to defend himself). If there were a way for the ticket recipient to be receive immediate feedback about the violation, my opposition would be greatly reduced. But if I receive a ticket and a photo in the mail two weeks later, chances are I will have no memory of this specific incident (and be powerless to oppose it).

    here’s one reason that I could find persuasive: saving police manpower! If police don’t have to handle routine stops, that could free up their time to do more pressing things. But the benefits of that would have to be proven. For example, traffic tickets may be a good excuse to stop cars exhibiting suspicious behavior.

    My personal problem with camera tickets is that I don’t know the threshhold for ticketing. If i follow a car across when the light is yellow, I don’t know if that would be considered a violation. Are the firms looking for egregious cases? Somehow I feel that if there is revenue involved, the tendency will be to fine all people who meet some minimum threshold.

    By the way, Stacy, that is an awesome document!

  14. robert kane says:

    @martin & John… do those intersections you are talking about have red light cameras… if not ask the city to put them. The intersections I’m talking about have about 0% pedestrian traffic and when I say rolling stop I mean just not coming to a complete stop but you have checked it is safe to continue. Everyone is entitled to their opinion I guess but until you have been through the process and see what its true intentions are I wouldn’t expect you to understand. As far as me not driving… 30 yrs with a license and so far not an accident, thats with a class B and motorcycle license… hope I just didn’t jinx myself.

    Why doesn’t anyone fight for speed controlled radar cameras, they are illegal in Texas, why is that?

  15. Martin says:


    If I were king, I would place a camera at every intersection. But that’s not the point. The point is that you seemed to suggest that rolling at an intersection before turning right was somehow acceptable and it is not.

    And the fact that you claim that the intersections where you seem to perform this illegal maneuver “have about 0% pedestrian traffic” doesn’t matter. It only takes that one time where you are not fully paying attention and BAM, you’ve killed someone. In fact, the fact that one performs these illegal turns in places where one almost never encounters a pedestrian would probably only make it more likely that one may forget to check that one time someone is crossing in front. Many of the oblivious drivers I have seen making these reckless turns in downtown and other relatively walkable parts of this city are driving big SUV’s with “CYFAIR” or “KATY” stickers on their back window. I am sure out where they live they never see pedestrians and they feel such turns are “safe.” That doesn’t mean that when they drive into the city and pull the same move they won’t run someone over!

    As far as speed cameras, I think they are great and wish they had them here in Texas. The two places I lived before moving here had speed cameras and the drivers there were much better and I didn’t fear for my life on the highways as I often do here in Houston. People here are terrible drivers.

  16. […] fully realize this is a debate that goes on and on (and on and on). But Berman’s argument — that red light cameras are a law breaker’s tax deserves attention […]