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Congress Considers De Facto Nationwide Red-Light Camera Ban

August 18, 2019
By Juliana Knot

Congress is considering a bill that would provide states with an overwhelming incentive to get rid of red-light traffic cameras.

The U.S. Congress is considering a bill that would provide states with an overwhelming incentive to get rid of red-light traffic cameras.

H.R. 2962, the Traffic Camera Freedom Act, would leverage federal funds for highways to spur states to act. States that allow governments to deploy speed and red-light cameras would lose half of their funding from the federal gasoline tax.

‘A Civil Liberties Issue’

“I filed this bill to build on what we accomplished in Texas,” U.S. Rep. Ron Wright (R-TX) told Budget and Tax News. “If something is a civil liberties issue for Texans, it is a civil liberties issue for all Americans.”

Wright was Tarrant County Tax Assessor-Collector before being elected to Congress last year. Texas state law had allowed tax officials to require payment of delinquent red-light camera fines before vehicle owners could renew their auto registrations. Wright famously chose not to collect the fines.

Bipartisan Opposition to Cameras

Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law a Texas bill that immediately banned a majority of the red-light cameras in the state on June 2.

Growing opposition to the cameras led to the passage of the law, says state Rep. Jonathan Stickland (R-Bedford), author of the bill.

“This has kind of hit a crescendo from the grassroots, left and right,” Stickland said, CBS 11 News in Dallas reported on June 1. “It’s not really Republican or Democrat. It’s about public safety and protecting people’s rights.”

Although Stickland’s bill grandfathered existing camera contracts until their expiration, it removed the ability to enforce collection of the fine upon registration, making it very unlikely most cities will continue the programs. Many Texas cities with existing contracts announced they will end their programs immediately. A few plan to continue.

Revenue Generator

Red-light camera programs are chiefly about profit, not safety, so withholding money from the states as Wright proposes might be the best way to deter these programs, says Jim Walker, executive director of the National Motorists Association Foundation.

“In almost every case, if a camera program in a city starts to lose money, it gets canceled as soon as the contract allows,” Walker said.

The camera companies approach cities and sell them on installing and maintaining the cameras at no cost, sharing the money generated from the tickets, says Walker.

“That makes the pitch hard to resist, as most cities need more revenue,” Walker said. “The camera companies typically get the first $4,000 to $5,000 per month per camera. Revenue beyond that goes to local and sometimes state governments.”

Fines, Fees Vary

The amount of the fees or fines varies from state to state. Illinois charges roughly $100 per ticket, and New York charges $50. California forces drivers to pay almost ten times that amount, says Shelia Dunn, communications director for the National Motorists Association (NMA).

“In California, tickets are $490,” Dunn said. “If you’re working-class, that could throw your entire monthly budget off.”

More Yellow, Less Revenue

In response to complaints that the length of yellow lights doesn’t give motorists adequate braking time, some cities have lengthened their yellow lights by one second, Walker says.  That can reduce ticket revenues by up to 90 percent, making the red-light cameras no longer profitable, says Walker.

“The problem is the total revenue would not be enough to pay the costs of the cameras and the local administrative costs,” Walker said. “Cities will not use the cameras as a cost item in their budgets. When the profits go away, so do the cameras in almost every case.”

The momentum is now against red-light cameras, says Walker.

“Large percentages of the population have figured out they are for-profit rackets, not safety programs,” Walker said. “There have been 42 public votes on red light and/or speed cameras, and the cameras lost 38 of the votes. Over 90 percent said no in actual votes.”

‘It’s Just a Racket’

Camera opponents express concern about the involvement of traffic-camera companies in these operations. Redflex, an Australian ticket-camera provider, paid the city of Chicago $20 million to settle a lawsuit over bribery and mismanagement charges, says Dunn.

Greed for fine money is corrupting traffic management, says Walker.

“Allowing for-profit camera companies to play any part in traffic enforcement essentially guarantees that profits, not safety, will be the true purpose and goal for the cameras,” Walker said.

“It’s just a racket,” Dunn said. “City and state governments keep putting this financial burden on the voter who is just trying to get by.”

Safety Benefits Questioned

Red-light camera proponents argue safety is the goal and claim the cameras reduce traffic accidents. NMA says studies do not show the cameras improve safety. There was no reduction in total accidents or injuries at red-light camera intersections in Houston, Texas over a 12-year period, researchers at Case-Western University found in a 2017 study.

NMA cites proper engineering of intersections, synchronization of traffic lights, and yellow-light timing as proven methods of maximizing safety.

“Cameras do not prevent intersection accidents,” Dunn said.

Juliana Knot (jjknot322@gmail.com) writes from Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Official Connections

U.S. Rep. Ron Wright (R-TX): https://wright.house.gov/

Texas state Rep. Jonathan Stickland (R-Bedford): https://house.texas.gov/members/member-page/?district=92

Internet Info

Justin Gallagher and Paul J. Fisher, “Criminal Deterrence When There Are Offsetting Risks: Traffic Cameras, Vehicular Accidents, and Public Safety,” working paper, Case Western Reserve University, November 17, 2017: https://www.heartland.org/publications-resources/publications/criminal-deterrence-when-there-are-offsetting-risks-traffic-cameras-vehicular-accidents-and-public-safety