Governor's Race Draws Spotlight On Red Light Cameras

photo by: Ben Schumin
Three candidates for Texas governor have taken different positions on red light cameras, a controversial traffic enforcement tool employed by dozens of Texas cities.

More than a decade after Texas cities began installing red light cameras at major intersections, the controversial traffic enforcement tool is emerging as a point of debate in the 2014 race for Texas governor.

Two Republican candidates for governor have staked out differing positions on whether Texas cities should be able to use the cameras. The winner of that primary is likely to bring up the issue in the general election, as state Sen. Wendy Davis of Fort Worth, the front-runner for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, has supported the technology in the past.

More than 500 U.S. cities have red light camera programs, including 62 in Texas, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The cameras snap images or video of vehicles that run red lights, allowing cities to mail a ticket to each vehicle’s owner based on license plates. Some Texas cities have employed the cameras to issue tickets for violations beyond red light running, such as a driver failing to come to a complete stop before turning right on red.

While supporters of the cameras insist they reduce accidents, critics argue that they trigger more collisions and that cities employ them largely as moneymakers. Some view the images and videos collected by the cameras and stored by public entities as a threat to civil liberties.

“Both the advocates of red light cameras and their detractors have a point,” Attorney General and Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott told a North Texas Tea Party group last month. “One emphasizes safety, and the other emphasizes privacy.”     

Several studies have found the cameras can reduce so-called T-bone accidents but may also increase rear-end collisions. Researchers with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute recently analyzed data from 32 Texas cities and found that T-bone crashes declined 24 percent while rear-end collisions increased 37 percent at intersections that had the cameras installed. The authors concluded that site selection is key. The cameras appeared to "provide a significant safety benefit" at intersections where crashes related to red light running had previously occurred with a certain frequency, they wrote.

The Texas Legislature has tweaked the way cities can operate the programs. Unlike other traffic violations, tickets from the red light cameras can only be civil violations, meaning a ticket cannot factor into a Texan’s driving records and failure to pay a fine cannot be reported to credit bureaus. Some cities have managed to block drivers with unpaid tickets from renewing their state vehicle registration. Cities must send a portion of the revenue from fines to a state fund for regional trauma centers. Repeated efforts to ban the cameras in Texas have failed.

Abbott said he supports making it easier for resident groups to repeal a city’s red light camera ordinance. While such initiatives have been successful in the past (Houston ditched its camera program after voters banned them in 2010), Abbott argued that some Texas cities place an unfairly high threshold for residents to challenge such ordinances. He’s proposed changing state law to require every Texas city to accept a petition to put the issue to a citywide vote if it’s signed by at least 10 percent of the voters who cast ballots in the most recent presidential or gubernatorial election, whichever is more recent.

“I believe it should be up to you the people to decide whether or not red light cameras are right for the community,” Abbott told Tea Party activists in Bedford.

Former Texas Workforce Commission Chairman Tom Pauken, another Republican running for governor, criticized Abbott for not backing the Texas Republican Party’s platform, which calls for banning the technology entirely.

"I don't think the safety argument holds water,” Pauken said. “It's really a revenue effort.”

Pauken said Abbott’s position puts him in line with Davis, who was on the Fort Worth City Council in 2007 when it voted unanimously to adopt its own red light camera program.

“Sen. Davis supports current law that gives control to municipalities and requires a portion of the funds to go to trauma centers and traffic safety programs,” Davis spokeswoman Rebecca Acuña said.

Davis has not brought up the issue since launching a campaign for governor in October.

The map below shows cities with red light camera programs. Select a map marker or cluster of markers for city names.

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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2013/12/05/governors-race-draws-spotlight-red-light-cameras/.