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Latest Red Light Camera Study Questions the System's Financial and Safety Perks

Let's talk (some more) about red light cameras, the subject of a report released today by the Texas Public Interest Research Group (TexPIRG), a watchdog organization that researches various subjects of public importance.

The report, Caution: Red Light Cameras Ahead, examines private companies' agreements with municipalities (about 700 throughout the country) in states that allow automated traffic law enforcement. "Contracts between private camera vendors and cities can include payment incentives that put profit above traffic safety," the report says.

Some contracts set ticket quotas for municipalities, according to the report, while others penalize cities if they extend yellow-light duration. Deals like these "sometimes prevent local governments from acting in the best interests of their citizens, especially when the terms of the deal prioritize delivering profits for the shareholders or owners of the private firm," the report says.

The report recommends stronger guidelines to "focus on improving road safety, rather than ticket revenue." These include ensuring there are no conflicts of interest between the city and the private contractor, avoiding incentives linked to the volume of issued tickets, and allowing ample public participation throughout the contracting process.

Some contracts set ticket quotas for municipalities, while others penalize cities if they extend yellow light duration. The report says deals like these "sometimes prevent local governments from acting in the best interests of their citizens, especially when the terms of the deal prioritize delivering profits for the shareholders or owners of the private firm."

The report recommends stronger guidelines to "focus on improving road safety, rather than ticket revenue." These include ensuring there are no conflicts of interest between the city and the private contractor, avoiding incentives linked to the volume of issued tickets, and allowing ample public participation throughout the contracting process.

As of September, Texas has 74 jurisdictions that implement red light cameras, only to be outdone by California, Florida, and Illinois.

Dallas is specifically singled out in the report's press release, which says:

Since 2007, over 780,000 violations in Dallas were dismissed due to the poor quality of photographs taken by red-light cameras. These violations could have generated $58 million. Dallas contracts with Affiliated Computer Systems and pays the company $3,800 for each of its 59 cameras each month. By July 2010, there were 59 cameras operating in the city. That means that ACS collects nearly a quarter of a million taxpayer dollars every month.

In other words, if the red light cameras are meant to generate revenue for the city, the system is not working at capacity -- to put it very gently.

In addition to the 30,000 people (annually in Dallas) who violate red light laws but are not ticketed because of faulty camera operations, many ticketed people have simply said, "Screw 'em," since there is no effective enforcement plan in place. Unlike when a cop issues a ticket, a camera citation is a civil, not criminal, offense, meaning there's no threat of arrest.

It was back in 2006 that the Dallas city council approved Affiliated Computer Services to begin monitoring your traffic traffic blunders and sending you $75 citations for driving through intersections like a lunatic. The city has spent nearly $30 million on its red light camera contracts with ACS, according to a 2009 revised contract.

At the most recent Automated Red Light Enforcement Commission meeting two weeks ago, there was discussion of putting a hold on the car registrations of repeat offenders, and that could potentially take effect months from now. But as it stands, 30 percent of the 125,000 people who receive citations annually do not remit payment. So, it's fair to say the system's inefficient at the very least, though not necessarily ineffective.

Another report discussed at the recent Commission meeting, the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) study released in June, compared crash frequencies to determine the cameras' effectiveness. Overall, there was a 27 percent overall decrease in accidents and a 38 percent decrease in Dallas.


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