State senator promises bill to ban red light cameras

Red light camera. (KXAN FIle Photo)
Red light camera. (KXAN FIle Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) – The day after a KXAN investigation exposed a lack of Texas cities’ compliance with the state’s red light camera law, a Dallas-area state senator wrote KXAN, demanding refunds from cities that charged red light camera fines without following the state’s red light camera law.

Senator Don Huffines, a Republican, promised to file new legislation to ban Texas cities from using red light cameras to assess a civil fine in lieu of the state’s criminal traffic charge for running a red light.

“It’s outrageous that so many cities are ignoring Texas law,” Huffines wrote in a statement to KXAN.

“This investigation by the reporters is fantastic,” Huffines said in an interview at his Dallas offices Tuesday, “They’ve done a great job of uncovering how widespread it is — it’s almost universal. Almost every single city out there is violating state law.”

Huffines said he’d heard rumblings about cities not complying with the 2007 red light camera law, but until our investigation into engineering records of the state’s 60 red light cities, the senator said he didn’t realize the depth of what he considered non-compliance.

The first-term senator said it’s time for voters and state lawmakers to act, “The citizens of these cities need to speak up. They need to go to the polls and vote their conscience about how these cities, these bureaucrats that care more about the money — this is about following the money,” Huffines said.

“I’m going to pull the plug on all the cameras. And, that’s my goal — is to get rid of the cameras statewide and we’re going to turn off the cameras once and for all,” Huffines told KXAN.

The red light camera craze blew through Texas cities like a west Texas dust storm about a decade ago. Cities across the state were scrambling to get in on the new technology — replacing cops with cameras to charge drivers for running red lights.

Before the Texas Legislature passed the state’s red light camera law in 2007, there were no rules on how cities could use cameras to fine drivers. There wasn’t even a law, according to State Rep. Jim Murphy who wrote the 2007 bill, that allowed cities to issue civil fines in lieu of the state’s criminal charge for that crime.

“It was the Wild West of red light cameras,” Murphy told KXAN.

The purpose of the 2007 red light camera law was to set the ground rules for cities to supplant its civil fines over state law and to make sure cities had a scientifically proven need for the cameras. The legislature didn’t want cities using the cameras as “ATMs along the highway,” Murphy said. The legislature’s way to accomplish this was requiring cities to have a signed and sealed traffic engineering study but a KXAN Investigation discovered many cities don’t have this document.

Abilene’s Decision to Not Install Red Light Cameras

It’s not often decisions made by the city of Abilene catches the attention of the people who don’t comprise the 122,225 who call it home. But, Abilene’s handling of a traffic engineering study in 2009 has grabbed the attention of those in the red light camera fight statewide.

“We would have been guessing. We would have been throwing darts in the dark. And, I think it’s irresponsible — would have been irresponsible not to do so,” Abilene Mayor Anthony Williams said. Williams was a council member in 2009 and was part of the decision to hire a licensed engineer to study 12 intersections in town, intersections the town deemed “dangerous.”

“We took it very seriously. Acknowledging that it was an issue for our city and now we had a law that told us what to do, we took it very seriously and committed ourselves to doing it and we executed,” Williams told KXAN during a city hall interview last month. “It cost some money. It wasn’t free.”

Abilene hired a Dallas engineering firm to investigate those 12 intersections, looking for improvements that could help cut down on some of the city’s red light crashes. In a 109-page report, the firm recommended changes such as signal timing, adjustments to lights and markings at 10 intersections. At the two other intersections, the engineers recommended installing red light cameras since there were no other options the firm could find to improve the intersection.

After performing a study, state law requires cities to appoint a citizens advisory committee to make recommendations to councils on decisions of installing cameras. Abilene City Council’s Advisory Committee advised against installing any red light cameras in Abilene, Williams said. Abilene made the changes to the intersections in the traffic engineering study but never installed a single camera.

“I think we can document we’ve made Abilene a safer place,” Williams said. Without the study, the mayor said, city hall would have no scientific evidence to show putting up red light cameras truly made a difference.

“We cannot ask our citizens to abide by the rules, the law, if we don’t. So, I think we were an example to those we serve and hopefully an example to other cities in our state,” continued Williams. “We really tried to do what is the right thing to do. I think that is a measure of not just good government, I think doing the right thing is a measure of just being a good human being.”

Williams said he has first-hand knowledge city leaders in other parts of Texas brought cameras to their towns for the wrong reasons.

“Well, I served on the Texas Municipal League for a number of years and talked to my peers in other communities and this was a revenue opportunity for some of those cities. Here, we did things differently. We really wanted the focal point to be safety,” Williams said.

KXAN sent out 60 open records requests as part of this investigation, looking for each city’s traffic engineering study. Only 50 cities turned their records over to us.

The cities that did not provide their studies include: Arlington, Corpus Christi, Frisco, Houston, Longview, Marshall, Port Lavaca, Sugar Land, and Terrell. City officials in the city of Sugar Land have attempted to block the release of their study by asking the Texas Attorney General’s Office to issue a ruling over whether the city can keep it secret.

Of the 50 cities we received records from, only three cities (Abilene, College Station and Southlake) had signed, sealed engineering studies that looked at alternative measures to red light cameras, another key requirement under the law.

What’s Next?

There are currently at least two lawsuits in courtrooms around Texas, filed by people seeking to have red light cameras ruled unconstitutional for various reasons, including the lack of a traffic engineering study. Opponents argue there is no right of due process built into the red light camera law to allow drivers — who believe they’re wrongly accused — to fight the charge in front of a jury trial.

Cities don’t have to prove who was driving the car. The only burden of proof red light cities face is tying the license plate to the registered owner of the car. The ticket is mailed to the owner, whether the owner was driving the car or not.

“We did not put penalties in this bill for failure to comply or some sort of injunctive relief or lose your ability to have red light cameras,” said Rep. Murphy. However, Murphy says it is something lawmakers might have to consider in the next legislative session. “I am not satisfied with the way these cameras are being deployed. It is not in keeping with what we wanted to do in the legislation and I’ll be pushing pretty hard to make sure that we make some changes.”

Any potential change won’t come until January 2019 at the earliest. That’s when the Texas Legislature reconvenes in Austin. In the meantime, Murphy told KXAN he plans to have Texas Department of Transportation staffers investigate what we’ve uncovered.

Huffines plans to attack Texas red light cameras again when the legislature comes back in 2019. “Red light cameras are unpopular, unsafe, and unjust,” Huffines wrote. “It’s past time to turn off every red light camera in Texas.”

Huffines’ district in North Texas is where half of the state’s red light cameras are located. Within Tarrant, Dallas and Denton Counties, there are 29 cities that have red light cameras. The cameras in those three counties have nabbed $324 million of the $537 million total collected by red light camera cities since 2008.

Huffines has spent two terms in the State House after defeating incumbent Senator John Carona, who co-authored the 2007 red light camera bill. In each of Huffines’ two sessions, he’s introduced bills to ban red light cameras across Texas. His latest attempt came in March 2017 with Senate Bill 88. Despite passing the Senate in late March, the bill did not make it out of the State House before the session ended.

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