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June 24th, 2007:

Red light cameras: Still more to come

Like ’em or not, red light cameras are not going away – in fact, they’re likely coming to a city near you.

More than a dozen municipalities, including Dallas and Houston, have them in place to catch red light runners. And more than 60 cities joined an informal “red light camera coalition” that hovered over the Legislature this spring as it considered how to regulate the emerging trend.

Austin and Round Rock were a part of that coalition, and both are moving toward installing cameras. Later this summer, Austin’s first red light cameras will appear at two intersections, although the pilot will generate only dummy citations so city officials can evaluate how they do. Round Rock is taking bids, and its city council probably will pick a vendor early in the fall.

“Our goal is just to reduce the number of people running red lights,” Round Rock spokesman Will Hampton said. “Does it generate revenue? Yes. But that’s how we change behavior.”


Since the cameras first appeared in a couple of Dallas suburbs in 2004, the debate in Texas has centered on the revenue-versus-safety issue, as well as the question of whether red-light cameras in fact make roads safer. Some opponents, pointing to studies, say the cameras cause more rear-end accidents (because of folks who jam on the brakes to avoid a ticket) than they prevent.

In a 2005 review of data, the Federal Highway Administration concluded that the presence of the cameras had reduced right-angle crashes about 25 percent. Rear-end accidents had increased 15 percent. And crashes of all kinds at nearby intersections had decreased 8.5 percent.

Yes, we’re still waiting to see what Houston’s camera data looks like. That we’re catching a lot or red light runners is clear. What effect that is having on accident and injury rates is still not.

Despite all the limitations, Austin and many other cities are moving forward. Austin will have two vendors put cameras on the southbound frontage road of Interstate 35 at Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and on the northbound frontage road at 11th Street. During the 60-day trial, offenses will generate only letters sent to the Municipal Court, and violators won’t be notified or have to pay a fine.

After that, the City Council will choose a vendor to put in cameras at a still undetermined number of intersections. By late this year or early 2008, Austinites who run those lights should be getting their first actual bits of bad news in the mail.

“Nobody likes getting a ticket, whether it’s from a camera or a police officer,” said Shelley Franklin, who runs Garland’s red light camera program. “But what’s the alternative? How else do you get people’s attention? Someone has to protect us from ourselves or each other.”

Well, you could put traffic officers at various intersections and have them nail the violators. That’s less effective and more costly, though it would generate more revenue on a per-ticket basis. Something tells me that the people who complain about the cameras, especially those who decry them as a revenue grab, would for the most part not be mollified by this.

Link via The Walker Report, whose camera-critic proprietor has written an I-told-you-so op-ed about the camera implementation in his city of Balcones Heights. It sounds more to me like they negotiated a deal that isn’t so good now with the passage of SB1119, but in and of itself I don’t consider that to be an indictment of the system. Your mileage may vary.

One more time: No special session!

Gah. From Cap Inside, via LOs Dos Professors, the special session madness just won’t go away.

Some state lawmakers want Governor Rick Perry to call a summer special session in hopes of heading off tuition hikes, budget cuts or property tax increases that they fear will be necessary as a result of his decision late last week to slash community college funding with his line-item veto authority.

The furor over Perry’s vetoes intensified Wednesday amid speculation that the governor was intentionally setting the stage for a special session in an attempt to force an overhaul in the way the state’s public colleges and universities are funded.

While higher education officials and their hometown lawmakers expressed disappointment, frustration and anger over the vetoed college funds, Perry is also catching increasing heat for vetoing an eminent domain bill that was designed to protect property rights, a school bus idling measure and a bill that would have increased retirement benefits for some legislative employees such as House and Senate clerks, cooks and parliamentarians including two who resigned during a revolt in the House on the session’s final weekend. The Republican governor vetoed 51 bills that had been approved during the regular session and $646 million in spending in two appropriations bills.

Perry has been upset about the methods that higher education officials have used to justify legislative appropriation requests – and he’s been unhappy with the Legislature’s resistance to his demands for more accountability and spending restraints on special items that he calls pork.

I don’t quite understand why anyone thinks Governor 39% will give lawmakers a second chance to pass legislation he’s already vetoed. I’m hard pressed to think of anything that’s less defining of Perry’s style than that. He may yet call a special (God, I hope not), but if he does, it’ll be on things he wants, like voter ID. Maybe if the Lege makes short work of his agenda in such a situation, he’d start lobbing them a few bones. But let’s keep in mind what the order of operations would be.

Keep your hands off my garlic!

Is nothing sacred any more?

Look around the kitchen of Filippo La Mantia’s hip restaurant in downtown Rome and you’ll see oranges, fresh basil, olive oil. But no garlic.

“I will never use garlic!” declares the Sicilian chef as he demonstrates how to make a flavorful pasta dish — octopus linguine with orange juice and almond pesto — without the ingredient he hates.

A quintessential element of traditional Italian and Mediterranean cooking, garlic is at the center of a gastronomic dispute in this nation that prides itself on its food. To critics it is just a stinky product that overwhelms more delicate flavors. Admirers say garlic enhances taste, gives a dish an extra punch — and is also good for the health.

“Garlic is the king of the kitchen,” says Antonello Colonna, another prominent Italian chef. “To eliminate it is like eliminating violins from an orchestra.”

Critics have started a ferocious campaign for garlic-free dining, and the debate has moved out of culinary circles. Corriere della Sera, Italy’s top daily, devoted a page to the matter this week, listing celebrities in each camp under the headline: “The Crusade of Garlic Enemies.”

Blasphemy! You can have my garlic when you pry it out of my cold, dead fingers.

Shaq’s Big Challenge

I saw a promo for this the other day, and while I doubt I’ll tune in, I hope it does well.

Here’s one way to get your earphone-wearing, video-game-playing, junk-food-eating kids off the couch and into a healthier lifestyle: Give ’em a Shaq Attack.

That’s what Shaquille O’Neal, the 7-foot, 325-pound center from pro basketball’s Miami Heat, delivers on his new ABC reality show, Shaq’s Big Challenge (8 p.m. Tuesdays, Channel 13).

O’Neal’s mission: to transform the lives of six obese children — none of whom can run a mile — into fit, active kids with a healthful outlook on life.

It won’t be easy with this bunch. One of the boys is addicted to “pizza burritos,” and another enjoys bowls of popcorn doused with two sticks of melted butter.

O’Neal, who said he’s been physically active his whole life, began to question why “big, husky, chubby kids” were becoming more common. And along the way, the answers became obvious.

“We live in a technological society,” O’Neal said. “It’s easy for a child to come home and listen to his iPod or play Sega. It’s easy just to e-mail friends and eat a whole bag of chips.”

But the threat to children’s health goes beyond the home, as O’Neal sees it: The abundance of junk food and lack of focus on physical education in the nation’s schools also are problems.

“I had mandatory PE,” he said. “Now only 6 percent of schools have mandatory PE. That’s terrible.”

Yeah, I had PE all the way through high school. Can’t say it was my favorite thing – at Stuyvesant, it always seemed like gym class in the basement was followed by a class on the fifth floor – but it’s a good thing, one that kids should be exposed to. Maybe for Shaq’s next project, he can use his experience with this show to lobby Congress for a renewed emphasis on PE in the public schools.

His isn’t the only such show on TV. Tiffany decided to TiVo an episode of Honey, We’re Killing The Kids last week. It’s quite an eye-opener.

In the series, our nutrition expert Felicia Stoler, MS, RD shows how everyday choices can have long-term impacts on children, and offers both the motivation and the know-how to help turn these families’ lives around. Using state-of-the-art computer imaging and certified assessments based on measurements and statistics, Felicia first gives Mom and Dad a wake-up call to the possible future of their children. Then, introducing her new guidelines and techniques, Felicia will work with parents to reverse course and give their kids a healthy diet and active lifestyle.

The family then has three weeks to overhaul its bad habits under the direction of Felicia, who delivers a set of life-altering rules with the aim of completely transforming the children’s future health and lifestyle.

How are the families responding to the challenges set by Felicia? Are the children trying new healthy foods? Can Mom quit smoking? Will Dad agree to become more involved in family life? Will the children try rock-climbing? While not always initially easy for the families, the rules often become fun, as new experiences are brought into their routines.

I thought the show relied a bit too much on the “state-of-the-art computer imaging” and didn’t spend enough time talking about the nuts and bolts of good nutrition; Tiffany and I both thought there wasn’t enough emphasis on how to really learn and follow the rules that families get in a big, thick binder. But at least in the show we watched, it appeared to be effective. One of the parents, who had to weigh over 300 pounds, was said to have lost a total of 50 pounds after seven weeks. That’s pretty impressive.

“Fire-safe” cigarettes

No matter how obsessively one follows the Lege, there’s always a few interesting bills that make it through completely under the radar.

Legislators couldn’t agree to ban smoking in public places this session. But they did mandate that all cigarettes sold in Texas by 2010 be designed to snuff out after the last puff.

“The reality is the technology is such that you can have safer burning cigarettes that kind of extinguish themselves,” said Sen. Royce West, the Dallas Democrat who helped carry House Bill 2935 to the governor’s desk. “We should take advantage of it.”

Texas isn’t quite blazing a trail. New York, which has required “fire-safe cigarettes” since 2004, was the trendsetter. Its legal standard has become the boilerplate for 15 other states, affecting nearly half of the American public.

The cigarettes employ two or three bands of special paper that act as tiny firewalls to self-extinguish if the user isn’t actively smoking.

“Texas is a huge boost to our initiative in that it brings us another big state and another big indication that (someday) every state in the country will be protected by this legislation,” said Lorraine Carli, spokeswoman for the Coalition for Fire-Safe Cigarettes, run by the National Fire Protection Association.

Texas will start affixing tax stamps only to fire-safe cigarettes as of Jan. 1, 2009, and any retail stock of non-fire-safe cigarettes remaining could not be sold after 2010.


According to a 2005 Harvard School of Public Health report, cited in Connecticut legislative research documents, the new cigarettes didn’t affect prices or sales in New York.

Carli’s group says smoking-related fires kill 700 to 900 people a year, about a quarter of them people other than the person wielding the fateful cigarette.

Smoking is blamed for nearly 4,000 structure fires in Texas from 2000 to 2005, according to the state fire marshal’s office. Fifty people died in those blazes, making smoking the most common cause of fatalities in accidental fires.

Seems like a reasonable enough thing to me. The technology exists, it won’t cost any extra money, and it may help prevent a few fires and deaths from those fires. I’m not sure what the argument against this is, but for what it’s worth, the final version of HB2935 passed the House on a 131-4 vote, with Bonnen, Crabb, Harper-Brown, and Riddle voting No. It passed the Senate unanimously, as is often the case.