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SafeClear

Council will vote on SafeClear changes

Back in March, the city announced that it would be removing most of the subsidies for SafeClear as a cost-saving measure. The details have now been finalized and will be ready for Council action in June.

Roadside services, such as changing a tire, would cost $30.

The city had been paying that $50 per tow. Under [Mayor Annise] Parker’s plan, the city’s only involvement in the program would be a $100,000 fund, set aside to cover the fees of indigent drivers.

If a driver cannot pay when towed, the car could stay at a storage lot for 48 hours without charge while the owner found the money, Parker said. She acknowledged that loss of revenue to lot operators took time to negotiate.

SafeClear “makes it safe for the motorists who have broken down and it makes it safer for the rest of the traveling public,” Parker said. “We believe that this is a much more sustainable program going forward.”

Passing the burden to motorists would save the city $3.5 million.

The funds come from Metro, and will be redirected to roads. You can see Mayor Parker’s statement about this here. One question that was raised in the comments of my previous post is what happens to someone who can’t pay the towing fee within the 48 hours of “free storage time” for their car. I sent an inquiry about that, and was told that the 48 hours is to provide those who may be unable to pay with time to present verification that they qualify for the assistance. All they will need to do is present some form of verification that they qualify for other assistance programs. This might include a Long Star Card, a hospital district card, unemployment or something similar. Seems sensible to me.

UPDATE: According to the Mayor’s office, Council will vote on the changes this week. If they pass, they will take effect in June. I misread the story, and have corrected the headline accordingly. My apologies for the confusion.

No more free tows

Change is coming to SafeClear – it will now cost $50 for a tow on a highway inside the city, instead of it being provided for free.

Passing the cost of towing to motorists is expected to save the city about $3.3 million a year, one of numerous steps the city is considering to close a $130 million budget gap for the year that begins July 1.

“We can no longer afford to pay for this program,” said Councilwoman Sue Lovell, who chairs council’s transportation committee and helped work out the new arrangement with city-contracted towing companies.

The SafeClear program’s operations will not change much beyond the pay-at-the-curb proposal. When a car breaks down in the emergency lane, a city-dispatched truck arrives within six minutes and tows it from the freeway, with or without the driver’s consent. Currently, the city pays the towing company $50 per vehicle cleared from the freeway.

Jeanette Rash, of the SafeClear Management Group, a consortium of towing companies that patrol the freeways and respond to city dispatchers’ calls, said she is trying to arrange direct billing to insurance companies so motorists do not have to pay tow truck drivers up front and later seek reimbursement under their policies.

Considering that ending the program altogether had been on the table, that’s not so bad. There are still issues to be worked out, such as how to deal with uninsured and indigent motorists, and of course Council will weigh in, which is sure to mean some non-trivial amount of disagreement. But one way or another, SafeClear is going to be different.

HPD braces for cuts

More than $15 million is going to be cut from HPD’s budget, in part to lost red light camera revenue and in part to the overall budget picture.

The equivalent of more than 100 civilian jobs, including temporary workers, will be eliminated over two years through layoffs and attrition. Chief Charles McClelland has moved to cut overtime, delay two cadet classes, institute a hiring freeze for civilians and deploy officers to administrative duties previously completed by civilians.

Several signature programs of former Mayor Bill White, including SafeClear, a towing program used to clear roadways, and mobility response teams, which were deployed to ease traffic congestion, may be canceled or significantly revised, police and city officials said.

[…]

Mayor Annise Parker insisted the cuts would not damage crime-fighting efforts.

“None of the cuts are going to impact public safety,” she said. “We are consolidating in every city department. … We are not laying off police officers, we are not laying off firefighters.”

City Councilman Mike Sullivan, who said he opposed more than $2 million in cuts to police overtime funding, disputed that claim.

“When you make cuts in the police budget, in staffing, overtime, investigative resources, it’s going to impact the crime rate,” he said. “It will go up. It’s just statistically a proven fact that when we reduce our resources to the police department, crime goes up.”

I don’t accept claims like that without actually seeing the statistics that are being cited to prove it. There’s no clear correlation between the number of police officers in a city and that city’s murder rate, for instance. Surely the Councilman knows someone who has access to, say, the last ten years’ worth of Houston crime data and HPD budget and personnel data. Throw it into an Excel spreadsheet, produce some charts, and then we can talk. It may well be that he’s correct, or it may be that in times of tight budgets HPD shifts its resources away from things that don’t actually have much effect on the crime rate. Who knows? What I’m saying is that this is all objective and testable, so let’s see some numbers.

And if it turns out that CM Sullivan is absolutely correct and that further cuts to HPD’s budget puts us at risk of a spike in the crime rate, we do always have the option of raising revenue so that we don’t have to force HPD to slash its budget. If maintaining some minimum level of staffing at HPD is such a priority, then shouldn’t we find a way to pay for it? And if we’re not willing to find a way to pay for it, then is it really a priority? I know, I know, everybody’s talking about cuts, and maybe there’s some other expenses that could be cut to make room in the budget for more HPD funding. I’m asking again, what is the minimum level of services we’re willing to accept, and how do we intend to pay for it? For that matter, what level of services do we actually want to have, and how do we intend to pay for that? We need to have that conversation before we can sensibly tackle these problems.

Safe Clear reduces wrecks

So says a study commissioned by the city.

Houston’s mandatory towing program has continued to reduce crashes on the city’s freeways, according to a city-commissioned study released Monday.

The study examined the effect of the Safe Clear program from 2005 through 2008. It found there were 120 fewer accidents per month, on average, compared to the baseline year of 2004. The program began in January 2005.

[…]

The new study could not discern if crashes declined because wreckers were no longer racing each other to a scene or because rubbernecking was reduced.

But the study did take into account other influences on the crash rate, such as rainy days, gas prices and the amount of traffic.

“It makes the program look exceptionally effective,” said Bob Stein, a Rice University professor who co-authored the study with Tim Lomax of the A&M Texas Transportation Institute. (Stein’s wife works for the White administration as a City Council agenda director.)

The study showed a correlation between Safe Clear response times and the number of monthly accidents. The faster towing trucks responded to a call, the fewer accidents on the freeway. For every minute decrease in response time, monthly collisions dropped by 80 on all Houston highways, Stein said.

I don’t have any trouble believing that SafeClear has been effective. Hell, just not seeing thirty-seven wreckers at every fender bender on the Loop makes it a win in my book. I have to ask, though, was there no one else available to do this study? Stein’s a fine political scientist, but his last traffic-related effort wasn’t so hot. I hope this one at least is a bit less controversial.

UPDATE: Here’s the Rice press release on the study, with charts. Thanks to Joe White for finding this.