By TCCRI Staff. Oct. 21, 2019
It should surprise no one that red light cameras are wildly unpopular. Since the law allowing red light cameras took effect in 2007, every city that has put the issue directly to voters—Houston, Arlington, and College Station, to name a few—has voted to ban their use. Local governments love them, of course. They create a steady revenue stream and local law enforcement doesn’t even have to catch anyone in the act. This clash between government and the people came to a head earlier this year when the Texas Legislature passed House Bill 1631, which prohibits the use of red-light cameras in Texas. Though a few cities, such as Humble, argue that their contracts qualify for an exemption under the bill, a recent report indicates that 61 of 67 cities utilizing red-light cameras terminated their program within a week of the bill’s signing in June. The legislature should be applauded.
The fundamental problem with the use of red-light cameras is that they violate due process. Prior to HB 1631 passing, Texas law provided that the cameras could take pictures of the front or rear of a vehicle. Based on vehicle records, the registered owner of the vehicle involved in an alleged red-light violation would receive a ticket, even if there was no evidence that the owner of the vehicle was the driver. This presumption of guilt runs counter to our nation’s established legal tradition, and it is especially concerning given that any one of numerous people acquainted with the owner, such as a spouse, child, roommate, or friend, could have been the responsible party. Worse yet, owners of vehicles who received tickets based on red-light cameras were not given the opportunity to confront their accuser; an employee of the city or a contractor hired by the city could simply review the recording and submit an affidavit stating that the recording shows a violation and that the recording is reliable.
City officials in other jurisdictions have been caught abusing the benefits that accompany denying people due process. In Chicago, for example, the city was caught speeding up yellow lights, which resulted in 77,000 additional tickets, which increased city revenue by $8 million.
Despite valid due process concerns, local governments claim that the increases to public safety make red light cameras worth it, but even the claim of improved traffic safety is questionable; there is evidence that red-light cameras can actually increase accidents. Drivers who notice a camera at a light that is about to turn red may slam on their brakes due to fear of a ticket, increasing the chances that they will be rear-ended by drivers behind them (a perfect example of the law of unintended consequences).
The Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles issued a 2016 report that found increases in almost every type of accident following installation of red light cameras, including a rear-end collision increase of 11.41 percent, angle crash increase of 6.42 percent, and crashes that cause injury increased by 9.32 percent. Similar evidence was found in Chicago, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C..
In Texas, there are serious concerns that many cities did not follow the law in setting up their red-light cameras. The law provided that a city must conduct an engineering study prior to installing a red-light camera at a given intersection. The purpose of such a study was to determine whether actions other than installing a red-light camera could contribute to fewer red-light violations at the applicable intersection. Multiple news reports indicated that dozens of cities ignored the engineering study requirement. When asked for an explanation, cities have responded with the dubious argument that they were “grandfathered” into the law as it existed prior to an engineering study being required and thus are not subject to that requirement. The relevant statute, however, provides no clear indication of this alleged grandfathering and a sponsor of the 2007 legislation in the Texas House of Representatives has publicly stated that there was no intent in the law to exempt any cities from the engineering study requirement. The irony of cities using possibly illegal red-light cameras to enforce traffic rules is all too obvious.
Despite wide recognition in denying due process, doing little to nothing with respect to making roads safer, and serving as a cash machine for local governments, HB 1631 was a heavy lift for the legislature. Police departments and local governments are a powerful constituency, but legislators sided with the people. They should be applauded.