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Do red light cameras reduce accidents or generate revenue?

Recently, Mayor Bill White convinced City Council to approve red light traffic cameras, ostensibly to improve safety. However, some of us think it’s more likely a new way to generate revenue, kind of like $AFEclear.

With that in mind, here are the results of a study performed by the Commonwealth of Virginia’s Department of Transportation that shows injury accidents actually increased at intersections where red light cameras were installed:

Despite a distinct sympathy in favor of camera enforcement, the researchers found a “definite” increase in rear-end accidents and only a “possible” decrease in angle accidents. Most importantly, the net effect was that more injuries happened after cameras are installed. Camera proponents explain this away by asserting angle accidents are more serious, but this claim has not been scientifically studied according to this report. The rear end collisions caused by the cameras still produce injuries — the original promise of camera proponents was that they would reduce accidents and injuries, not rearrange them.

This study agrees with long-term findings in Australia and North Carolina.

If this were truly about safety, the city might try to lengthen yellow light times first, to see if that helps reduce red light violations. Or how about the idea of programming the lights so all lights in an intersection stay red for one to two seconds? Or take some police officers off $AFEclear taxi duty and have them monitor the worst intersections? But, those ideas won’t generate revenue.

Also on the subject of red light cameras, a Houston attorney writes that large municipalities are turning traffic tickets into civil cases, which he says is a revenue-generator:

A more recent example is the City of Houston’s aggressive attempt to decriminalize red light tickets. Running a red light under Texas State law is a Class C Misdemeanor, a criminal offense. As such, it carries all the protections due an accused in a criminal case. In what many consider an unconstitutional move, the City of Houston passed an ordinance on December 21, 2004 to decriminalize some red light tickets at intersections where the City of Houston will be installing cameras to monitor traffic. The City of Houston, a political subdivision of the State of Texas, has usurped the power of the Texas State Legislature and changed running a red light from a criminal violation to a civil violation.

There will be two different standards in Houston for the same offense. Those accused of running a red light at an intersection without a camera will be charged criminally and those accused of running a red light at an intersection with a camera will be cited civilly. Under Houston’s ordinance, the owner of a car cited with running a red light at an intersection monitored by a camera will be presumed guilty and owe a fine of $75 ($150 for third or subsequent violations). To fight these tickets, the owner of the car will now have to go before an administrative hearing officer, not a judge or jury, and prove that he or she did not run the red light.

That’s pretty enlightening, I think.

Mayor White is a shrewd guy. He knows that people are fed up with new taxes, so he masks these revenue-generating ideas in the guise of safety. Some members of the Texas Legislature have promised to deal with Houston’s red light camera ordinance so maybe the mayor will get the chance to try out some of those alternative solutions really to reduce the number of red light runners in a safe manner.

KEVIN WHITED (SNARKILY) ADDS: I get the idea Anne purposely avoided using that term favored by those who like to expand government, “new revenue stream.” Between the expanded downtown parking meters, red light cameras, and SAFEclear wrecker-oligopoly franchise fees, Mayor White has indeed created “new revenue streams.”

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