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More cameras, fewer tickets

I would classify this as good news.

Red-light camera citations have decreased steadily since Houston police boosted their monitoring at intersections six months ago, newly released records show.

The number of citations declined by a third, to 17,000 last month from a high of 27,000 in October — all after police added an extra 20 cameras and began fining motorists for illegal turns.

The rapid decline at the 70 camera locations is a sign, city and police officials say, that more motorists know they are being watched and are more cautious about getting nabbed.

“If a person is going the same route day after day, and then they get a ticket because they ran a red light, they are less likely to run the light,” Mayor Bill White said Monday.

For a period of about a year, the eastbound service road for I-10 at Studemont was a regular speed trap. A couple of times a month, you’d see officers with their radar guns, pulling people over for speeding, mostly people who’d just exited the freeway. They caught me the first time I drove through their setup. You bet your ass I was extremely watchful of how fast I was going after that; I may be dumb enough to get nailed once, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to be a repeat customer. So yes, I think Mayor White is exactly right here.

And that was the point of the cameras, wasn’t it? Not just to catch those who ran red lights, but to discourage everyone else from doing so as well. The data suggests that they’re doing a good job of that.

Overall, the cameras have nabbed more than 230,000 vehicles since they went online in September 2006.

About 60 percent of those motorists have paid their fines, resulting in more than $11.5 million in revenue. The police department has spent $4 million operating the system, including $2.7 million to its vendor, American Traffic Solutions. Another $2.1 million must be shared with the state, leaving a profit of about $5.4 million, records show.

The information about camera revenue is very interesting. As Grits pointed out last week, the city of Dallas is seeing a similar decline in red light violations being captured by their cameras, but that decline is causing a big drop in revenue, which in turn is forcing Dallas to re-evaluate its usage of the cameras, lest they be operated at a loss. Now maybe Houston signed a better contract than Dallas did. Maybe Houston did a better job of locating the cameras at intersections that had real problems with red light running. And maybe Houston will be in the same position Dallas now finds itself in some day, regardless of how good the contract and camera placement are. I can’t really tell if we’re smart, lucky, or just not yet at the crossroads. But it’s worth thinking about what should be done in the event the cameras don’t pay for themselves. If this is about safety, then it’s worthwhile for the city to spend some amount of money to keep the cameras running and maintain the gains it has made in reducing red light violations. Obviously, there’s a limit to this, but what is that limit? And what do we do when we reach it? Those questions need answers.

While the citation figures show that fewer motorists are breaking the law at monitored intersections, it remains unclear whether the intersections actually are safer.

“The simple fact that the cameras are giving out more citations at intersections, that doesn’t mean that Houston is safer,” said lawyer Paul Kubosh, a critic who unsuccessfully sued the city over the legality of the red-light camera program.

Researchers from Rice University and the Texas Transportation Institute are conducting a statistical study on accident trends at the monitored sites, but it was unclear when the results will be released.

Kubosh said that study could show that minor accidents actually increased at the intersections as motorists make abrupt stops to avoid citations — a dynamic other cities across the country have seen.

“The whole purpose of the cameras is to decrease accidents,” he said. “They sold this thing on accident prevention.”

Officers who monitor the program say the study should show that accidents have decreased, said Sgt. Darrell Prince, who supervises the program and monitors video.

“Honestly,” he said. “I’ve seen very few accidents.”

Yes, it’s certainly possible that minor accidents may increase – we’ll know for sure when that study is finalized. But an increase in minor accidents may be an acceptable outcome if major accidents, especially accidents that involve injuries, decrease. It’s not about decreasing accidents so much as it is about increasing safety. Fender-benders and T-bones are not the same, and they shouldn’t be treated the same.

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5 Comments

  1. Grumpy says:

    Kuff,

    The cash scam cams have been and remain revenue tools. You may remember our execrable chief, when the cams came on board, stating that they were ‘about safety’ and in the next breath stating what he’d do with all the lucre.

    Dallas has reached the point of diminishing returns, despite running traffic light timing with less than mandated minimum yellow time.

    Plano reports intersection incidents increasing, primarily rear ending, but of course PPD probably cites drivers for failure to control speed, a higher fine that likely keeps the revenue stream going.

    Bottom line; traffic ‘offenses’ are either criminal in nature, and provide an opportunity to defend for the accused, or they are ‘administrative’ with no recourse for the tagged driver. Time to decide, it cannot be both.

    Best,

    Grumpy

  2. Charles Hixon says:

    I think it has a positive effect at intersections without cameras too because the formerly frequent offender is changing his habits.

  3. FWIW, in Dallas, it wasn’t that the number of tickets declined, it’s that their ESTIMATES were lowered when they actually got the cameras up and running and got real data.

    By limiting city revenue, the Lege has created a situation where the cameras aren’t the cash cow cities had hoped. They’re so expensive to operate, if the number of tickets go down they’re not cost effective.

    Since under the current rules they’re NOT a cash cow, a better use of money would be to just pay officer overtime for traffic enforcement. But the goal was always revenue, never safety, so instead I’d expect cities to keep the cameras and go back to the Lege to try to lift the revenue restrictions.

  4. Grumpy says:

    IMHO any cash from a scam cam is bovine in nature.

    Re TX tix cams; take a gander at this and check the commentary at: http://www.empowertexans.com/node/502

    “Did you know cities are required to post signs telling you red-light cameras are in effect at an intersection? And without the signs, they cannot collect a fine? We chatted this week with State Rep. Bill Callegari, who passed the law and is bothered by the lack of compliance around the state.”

  5. M1EK says:

    As usual, the benefit of “catching the bad guy” is ignored. I WANT people who run red lights to get tickets – and the cops, for whatever reason, can’t get it done today.

    All else being equal, in other words, even without any direct and immediate safety benefit, I STILL want the red-light runner to get a ticket – because I think it helps us in the long-run.

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