Sunday, December 02, 2007

Red Light (Camera) District

The best thing that can be said of SB1119, the statute on red light cameras, is that it at least regulates what had been a wide open race for the easy money. City Manager Harold Dominguez relates that various vendors had been beating a path to his door, trying to get San Angelo to rush into this before Sept. 1, when this statute took effect. A system adopted before that may well get a grandfathered escape from such regulation as Chap. 707 puts into law. Thanks for that, Harold.

Some of the provisions of Chap. 707 mandate that the city actually studies any intersection where they propose to install these money generators. They must include data for 18 months prior, they must study alternatives, specifically intersection design, synchronization of traffic signals, and perhaps most importantly, lengthening the yellow phase of the signal. The city must appoint a citizens committee, one appointee per Council member, and this committee shall study the question and alternatives.

The best thing that might come out of this proposal could be that the city will be forced to make an honest attempt to synchronize signals, something any driver knows we now rate an "F" on.

Key to the statute is designating the result of a red light camera as a civil matter. On the one hand, it allows the authority installing the cameras to sidestep some of those pesky "rights" granted to any criminal defendant. On the other hand, it means a camera generated "ticket" will not go on one's driving record, presumably would not affect insurance rates, but the bill leaves that to the discretion of your insurer. One cannot be arrested for failure to pay the "civil liability", but just to encourage payment, you won't be allowed to renew vehicle registration with an unpaid ticket, pardon me, "civil liability" out there.

One can contest such "notice of civil liability", but the deck is neatly stacked in the camera's favor. The city has to appoint a hearing officer to take up such contests, but they are free to designate as that officer an employee of the vendor operating the cameras. In such a hearing "Liability" (note: it is civil; guilt/innocence are irrelevant terms.) is established by the more lax "preponderance of evidence" common to civil cases rather than the "clear and convincing evidence" rule used in criminal matters. Reliability of the cameras is all but a given, may be established by "affidavit", said affidavit given by the vendor who probably employs one's hearing officer. The presumption that the owner was the driver is enshrined in statute, unless of course the "owner" is a rental/lease firm, or a car lot letting a driver take it for a spin, in which case they are compelled to rat you out.

From there, the "suspect" can appeal to municipal court, if one is willing to pre-pay costs of the court and take another day off work. With the charge limited to a $75 "liability" (remember, this is civil, "fine" is also an irrelevant term.) with a $25 late fee cap, the encouragement is going to be to just pay the damned thing and get it out of the way.

Looking at what is available in the way of "studies", can be confusing. As the Standard-Times notes, the National Motorists Association's lead guy on the topic, Greg Mauz lives just down the road in Christoval, I'm sure our citizens' committee will hear him, but NMA's bias is clear. Similarly, the Federal Highway Administration has embraced these devices as a matter of policy, so their data is similarly suspect. It's kind of like listening to a debate on global warming between Al Gore and the American Coal Council.

One thing that is crystal clear, safety issues are in dispute, but these suckers are one money generating machine. No debate about that at all. Under Chap 707, the money is split between the city and a regional trauma account, most of that half helps pay for uncompensated ER expenses. The city's half is limited to more or less traffic related use, but money is fungible, budget dollars replaced by red light camera income can be spent as the city pleases.

One provision of Chap. 707 requires any entity adopting these cameras to make annual reports to Texas DOT, which must publish same by Dec. 1 of each year. I submit, that San Angelo has lived without these things this long, we can hold off for a year until we have a relatively clean data base of real world use to judge them by.

To be honest, my opinion is similar to Councilman Morrison's, and the term "Big Brother" comes to mind. My impression is of a cash cow wearing a little "public safety lipstick". Whatever one's opinion, I do believe we ought at least wait on some less polluted data which will be available next year.


  1. additional reading...

    Jim, no mention of who the city would be contracting with or how many cameras are being considered.

    Also, it was my understanding that the company that puts the cameras in gets commissions on each "ticket."

  2. Allie, I appreciate your concerns. The stories you link to are just a few of the many I have seen out there.

    There is no specific number of cameras out there, and there can't be until after full traffic studies are done and a citizens advisory committee is appointed, which must also approve the cameras. Also, yellow light timing can't be adjusted differently for signals with and without cameras.

    Also, under the new statute, 707.003(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." Kind of kills the commission as a payment method.

    I am glad we waited until after SB1119 passed. Cities that were early adopters, like Houston, were grandfathered in under very wide open rules. The new law does make it much more difficult to turn red light cameras into a revenue stream. It ain't perfect, but it's moving in the right direction. I seriously doubt we will see any red light cameras here soon.

  3. The right direction is that cameras can only be used based on a verified, thoroughly studied public safety need. This must be a very compelling public safety need. No revenue generation allowed. Clearer?

  4. Then why not just go ahead and drop the whole thing now? Traffic citations in general are already, without cameras, more about revenue generation than anything else, and we know that the studies say (if you really need them to figure this one out) that these cameras make intersections more dangerous.

    Specifically, what are the incentives, beyond the alleged "safety" component, that the city has for putting these cameras in?

  5. Please sir, instead of making false assumptions about the NMA and a man trying to correct a major fraud, why don't you just call Greg Mauz at 325-896-2595. He will be happy to explain the honest truth about whatever questions you may have.

    from Greg Mauz

    posted by S. Donaldson for Mauz

  6. srd275; My apologies if I came across as dismissive of Mr. Mauz. Actually, I have read quite a bit from NMA, and I personally lean more to NMA's view than that of the camera proponents.

    My comment in the article was to point out that most of what is out there in the way of studies is put out by a party whose position is already staked out, pro or con. In my opinion this is all the more reason to wait AT LEAST the year until we see the reports Chap. 707 mandates be made of specific, real world intersections here in Texas.

    While at it, let me remind all, this is an open Blog. I invite, yea, encourage you or Mr. Mauz to post here. Nothing like hearing info from the source most familiar with the subject. Whether as comment or as a new post, I know Mauz has spent more time and done more research than I've had time to do, such an article should be a valuable addition to the conversation.