June 13, 2007
On the new red light camera (not quite yet) law

I might have waited till Governor Perry actually signed SB1119 before I ran this article about what its passage will mean, since after all nobody really knows when Perry will break out his mighty veto pen, but given that it's been run, let's take a look.

Harris County and the Texas Department of Transportation could refuse to register a vehicle whose owner has an outstanding $75 red-light camera ticket, under a bill approved recently by the state legislature. It still needs Gov. Rick Perry's signature to become law.

"It's definitely going to be inconvenient when you go to register your vehicle and you can't," said Houston Police Department Sgt. E.B. Robinson, who oversees the red-light camera program.

But blocking drivers from registering their cars isn't as easy as it sounds, said Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Paul Bettencourt, whose office issues registrations. He doubted his office or TXDOT could quickly implement the new rule if the governor signs it into law, because the state database that blocks individuals from registering would have to be revamped.

"There are so many issues with this," he said, adding that other new laws with similar logistical problems have taken years to implement.

A spokesman for TXDOT declined to comment because the bill hasn't been signed.

Far be it from me to suggest that there can't be problems with the implementation of state databases, but years? Really? I'd rather they get it right slow than get it wrong fast, so if that's what it takes then that's what it takes. I'd still like to get a narrower estimate of the time frame, just for my own information. By "years", do we mean two, or five? That sort of thing.

While the proposal would give violators new incentive to pay the fine, it also takes the teeth out of the city's previous enforcement mechanism by prohibiting the contractor in charge of the program from reporting unpaid civil penalties to credit agencies.

The city's system is run by Scottsdale, Ariz.-based contractor American Traffic Solutions, Inc., which mails tickets to violators. If the owner of the vehicle doesn't pay or contest the ticket, a second notice is sent 45 days later with an additional $25 late fee. Tickets that still are not paid are turned over a law firm that serves as a collection agency.

That firm, Perdue, Brandon, Fielder, Collins & Mott, LLP, can sue violators, and if the individuals are found guilty, turn that information over to a credit bureau. Last month, the firm filed 13 lawsuits, according to Mike Darlow, a partner with the law firm.

While the firm sues most violators who have racked up several tickets, it sues only a portion of individuals with only one outstanding citation, Darlow said.

"You gotta let people know there are consequences to not paying," he said.

That consequence no longer would be allowed under the approved bill.

Here's the text of the bill, as enrolled. I call your attention to Sec. 707.003, subsection 2 (h):

A local authority or the person with which the local authority contracts for the administration and enforcement of a photographic traffic signal enforcement system may not provide information about a civil penalty imposed under this chapter to a credit bureau, as defined by Section 392.001, Finance Code.

So credit bureau reporting is out. However, I see no reason why judgments cannot be pursued, or collections turned over to an agency such as the Perdue, Branton firm. How much appetite said firm might now have for taking on the job, I couldn't say.

The bill also would require cities to report the number and types of accidents that occurred at each intersection over an 18-month period before installing cameras. After the cameras are installed, cities would report that same information to determine whether the system increased safety.

I covered that before. What I think should have been mentioned in this article is subsections (b), (c), and (f):

(b) A local authority that contracts for the administration and enforcement of a photographic traffic signal enforcement system may not agree to pay the contractor a specified percentage of, or dollar amount from, each civil penalty collected.

(c) Before installing a photographic traffic signal enforcement system at an intersection approach, the local authority shall conduct a traffic engineering study of the approach to determine whether, in addition to or as an alternative to the system, a design change to the approach or a change in the signalization of the intersection is likely to reduce the number of red light violations at the intersection.


(f) A local authority may not impose a civil penalty under this chapter on the owner of a motor vehicle if the local authority violates Subsection (b) or (c).

So if the camera vendor gets a cut of each ticket, the setup will be illegal and cannot be enforced. And if the city doesn't do a study to see if something like yellow light times can do a better job of reducing accidents at the camera-enabled intersections, then again the setup is illegal. How Houston handles that will be interesting.

Finally, as I've wondered before, I suspect all this will moot the Kubosh lawsuit. It would have been nice for the question to have been posed to him. I'd guess he has no plans to drop his suit, but you never know.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on June 13, 2007 to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles