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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.

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One Comment

  1. It sounds like the cities have not read the full text or the fiscal notes on SB1119.

    It still requires a traffic study, and all post operating expense revenues have to be put in the trauma account and local safety program funds equally. Net gain for the city’s revenue stream is (based on the City of Houston’s projected cost analysis of a traffic study) is -$10,000 (yes, net loss) per intersection.

    Some people can’t see the forest (overall costs) for the trees (small benefit).