Texas Is Latest State to Pump the Brakes on Red-Light Cameras

By Christine Hauser

Main Street in Fredericksburg, Tex. The governor signed a law this month banning red-light cameras in the state.CreditCreditPaul Harris/Getty Images

On a recent morning in May, Carlos Barrientos drove up to a Belt Line Road intersection on his way to work in Grand Prairie, Tex. His breakfast sandwich, sports drink, backpack and papers were arranged around him and on the seats, so Mr. Barrientos, 23, tried to avoid making sudden moves.

Suddenly a yellow traffic light flickered overhead, followed seconds later, he said, by a red light. A camera flashed, catching his license plate when the vehicle edged close to the crossing or continued through it, he said. Days later, he received what will soon be a thing of the past for thousands of drivers in Texas: a $75 ticket for going through a red light based on the automated camera snapshot.

“It does not give you any warning,” Mr. Barrientos, who works in real estate investing and marketing, said in an interview. “All of a sudden, two seconds to brake in a whole intersection. Go over the white line, you will still get that ticket.”

With the signing of a bill last weekend, Gov. Greg Abbott made Texas the latest state to ban red-light traffic cameras.

It joins at least seven other states — Maine, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, South Carolina, South Dakota and West Virginia — that already have statutes prohibiting the cameras, the National Conference of State Legislatures said. Around 20 more do not have automated traffic enforcement systems on public roads.

“Each state is responsible for prioritizing what devices go on their roadways,” the Federal Highway Administration said in an emailed statement.

The Texas ban takes effect on Sept. 1, but it allows communities more time, if needed, to complete their contracts with the private companies that operate the cameras — and get a flat fee or share revenue from the tickets.

The changes mean an end to the bane of cameras that drivers say pop into action too quickly, capturing an image of a license plate on a vehicle that has edged into a crossing while waiting to turn, only to be stuck at the moment the light changes to red. Others say the cameras are set off even if a car strays inches over a line marking the intersection, but then stops at the very last moment.

These and other frustrations were shared on social media as police departments across Texas announced this week that they were starting to deactivate their red-light cameras to comply with the new law. The Frisco Police Department said on Twitter on Monday that it would stop processing violations that it had been working on. The Haltom City Police Department said it had terminated its contract with Redflex Traffic Systems, the company that provided the cameras.

Mr. Barrientos, the driver who was given a ticket in Grand Prairie, was among the nearly 200 people who wrote to the Grand Prairie Police Department when it announced this week that it was ending enforcement action. Some said the cameras could be put to better use, or wondered whether to pay current tickets and if they would be reimbursed for tickets they already paid.

“Donate the cameras to Keep Grand Prairie Beautiful to catch those litter bugs !!!!!” one person wrote on the department’s Facebook page. Another resident suggested the cameras be repurposed in places “where our neighborhoods continue to get robbed.”

In Plano, a city of about 300,000 in North Texas, there was an average of about 17 traffic crashes a day before the red-light camera program was started in 2006. Chief Gregory W. Rushin of the Plano Police Department said in an interview on Friday that accidents decreased by about a third since cameras, under a $2 million contract with Redflex, were placed at intersections with the highest number of red-light runners and accidents.

Drivers or vehicle owners can contest the video and snapshot evidence sent to them with the citation, he said. Revenue from the tickets goes to trauma centers and to future traffic safety programs. “It’s not a money grab,” he said. “We are trying to save lives.”

The use of red-light cameras in the United States started in New York City, which tested one in 1992 and then turned on more of them over the years. Other state and city governments gradually adopted them, and in 2018 there were about 400 communities in the United States that operated red-light camera programs, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

But more red-light cameras have been discontinued than added since 2012, the institute said.

In 2017, 890 people nationwide were killed in crashes that involved running a red light, over half of them pedestrians, bicyclists and people in other vehicles, the insurance institute said. There were about 827 such deaths a year on average, the safety administration said.

Supporters say the payments for the tickets contribute to government coffers, and use of the cameras reduces serious traffic accidents, such as front-into-side, or “T-bone,” collisions, according to studies cited by the insurance institute.

Opponents say that the cameras contribute to rear-end collisions caused by sudden braking and that the enforcement is not transparent. They also complain that the cameras are overseen by private companies that share the revenues from the tickets they generate, creating an incentive to place the cameras in high-traffic areas.

The annual report for Suffolk County, N.Y., shows that revenue from the red-light cameras was about $28.9 million in 2017, with about $9 million of that paid to the vendor. Rear-end crashes rose at red-light camera intersections by as much as 21 percent in 2016 compared with 2009, the last year before the cameras were installed, it shows.

“One of the provisions is that the vendor chooses locations based on their discretion, not on accident location,” said Hector Gavilla, who is running for a seat as a Republican in the Suffolk County Legislature and maintains an anti-camera platform that publishes county contracts and other documents.

“They look for how many tickets it could issue,” he said.

A program in Los Angeles that started in 2004 encountered criticism that the cameras did little to improve public safety or reduce red-light running. A city study found that the cameras were generally installed at intersections thought to have the highest likelihood of producing revenue, rather than the highest incidence of traffic accidents stemming from running lights. In 2011, the City Council voted to end the cameras’ use.

In Arizona, the attorney general’s office issued an opinion in 2016 that the cameras’ private contractors should be subject to private investigator licensing requirements, according to a copy of the ruling.

Objections have also centered on constitutional grounds. In Congress last month, Representative Ron Wright, a Republican from Texas, introduced a bill that would force states to prohibit the use of automated traffic enforcement if they want federal highway funding.

“This presumption that the registered owner is the driver impermissibly shifts the burden of proof,” Mr. Wright said in an emailed statement.

Lawsuits have alleged that the cameras deny recipients the right to face their accuser or to due process.

Russell T. Bowman, a Texas lawyer, said he had more than 10 clients in cases involving red-light tickets in different cities. In a recent case heard by the Texas Supreme Court, Mr. Bowman asserted that red-light ticket holders had a right to a jury trial because it is a civil matter involving a penalty of less than $200.

Other cases involved red-light tickets issued to a husband and wife because they were both on the vehicle’s registration, even though only one of them had been driving. In another case, the registered owner of a trailer was ticketed, even though that trailer was being hauled by a truck driven by someone else. “Another illustration of how asinine these things are,” Mr. Bowman said.

But police officials in Texas have praised the cameras’ use as a traffic enforcement tool. Police chiefs appeared as witnesses to support the use of the cameras as the bill, H.B. 1631, made its way through the Legislature.

In a statement, Redflex Traffic Systems, whose parent company is based in Australia and which has had camera enforcement contracts in 20 jurisdictions in Texas since 2005, said it was “disappointed” about the new law because of the “clear evidence automated enforcement reduces violations and dangerous side-angle collisions.”

It said it expected enactment of the bill to “have a material impact” on the company’s financial performance.

American Traffic Solutions, another provider in Texas, did not reply when asked for comment.

State Representative Jonathan Stickland, a Republican, was a co-author of the Texas bill. Activists in the state had pursued the cause for years.

One activist was Kelly Canon, 60, who had successfully lobbied her city, Arlington, to end the use of red-light cameras after she was given a ticket while making a right turn in 2013. She and other activists then moved on to state legislators in Austin, citing a 2017 Case Western Reserve University study that used 12 years of data in Houston to find that the cameras changed the composition of accidents, but did not reduce them.

“We pushed with lawmakers and pulled contracts,” Ms. Canon said. “It took six years of our lives to get this done.”

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A4 of the New York edition with the headline: Texas Joins States Braking on Red-Light Cameras. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe