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David Minton

Keeping roads safe

Profile image for By Christian McPhate
By Christian McPhate

The flash happens in an instant. A bright light followed by darkness. It’s a tell-tale sign that another driver has run a red light and been nabbed by a towering red-light camera watching from the corner of one of 10 Denton intersections.

For nearly a decade, red-light cameras have been capturing violators who fail to stop at traffic signals. But according to police, most violations revolve around the “California stop” — when a motorist pulls up to the light and turns right without stopping completely. The ticket is $75.

In 2014, 15 cameras captured more than 35,000 violators — more than doubling the number from last year, when nine cameras recorded an estimated 12,000 infractions, according to figures provided by Lt. David Hildebrand. Hildebrand supervises the Denton Police Department’s operations administration division.

City officials deem the program a success and insist they will oppose any legislation that might might ban red-light camera programs, which are not popular with many citizens who equate them with a Big Brother-like atmosphere.

State Rep. Jonathan Stickland, a Republican who represents the Hurst-Euless-Bedford area of Tarrant County, plans to push legislation banning red-light cameras when the 84th Legislature convenes in January. If House Bill 142 becomes law, Denton and other cities would be allowed to finish the terms of their contracts with red-light camera companies, but they won’t be able to renew them.

On Dec. 16, the Denton City Council approved the city’s 2015 state legislative agenda for the upcoming legislative session. Under the public safety section, the city opposes legislation that further restricts its ability to use red-light camera enforcement at traffic lights.

“Red-Light Cameras (RLC) are one of the many tools in the ‘safety tool box’ to improve traffic safety in our City, and should continue to be used,” John Davis, director of engineering services, wrote in a Dec. 12 informal staff report to Mayor Chris Watts and the council.

House Bill 142 comes at a time when many Texas cities — Houston, College Station and Lubbock among them — already are banning red-light cameras.

Cities’ reasons for banning or ending red-light camera enforcement are varied. Some critics say the program violates due process of law because a police officer doesn’t witness the alleged violation and, therefore, cannot be examined at trial by a defendant challenging the ticket. Other critics complain that some violators can’t be fined because the car they were driving is not registered to them.

“Citizens are seeing them for what they are, just a way for cities to make money,” John Bowman, spokesman for the National Motorist Association, recently told the Killeen Daily Herald.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety Loss, a nonprofit organization, reported 501 red-light camera programs were operating nationwide with 62 of them in Texas.

Red-light cameras

The Automated Traffic Signal Enforcement Program came to Denton in May 2006. The city contracted with Redflex Traffic Systems to install six cameras to monitor traffic at four intersections. The city paid a flat monthly fee of $4,870 for each camera.

“[Red-light cameras are placed] in locations where it’s very difficult to put officers,” Hildebrand said.

Traffic cops often find it difficult to set up surveillance at intersections and catch red-light runners. It’s tedious work and often dangerous to stop violators in a congested intersection.

It’s easier to let a red-light camera do the work. The system monitors a traffic signal 24 hours a day. The camera’s shutter triggers when a vehicle enters the intersection above a pre-established minimum speed after a specific time when the signal turns red, according to the city’s website.

An initial photograph of the incident is taken, followed by a second shot that records the violator in the intersection. The date, time of day and time elapsed is also captured, and the image is sent to the red-light camera company for review.

Once a violation is determined, the company sends the images to a trained police officer who reviews the image and issues a citation. The city mails the ticket, along with the photographic proof of guilt, to the vehicle’s owner.

Speeding violations are Class C misdemeanors and technically a criminal matter. Red-light camera violations, however, are civil infractions and do not appear on driving records or cause insurance premiums to increase. A violator in Denton might not be able to renew vehicle registration if he fails to pay the $75 civil fine. Pay the ticket and you get to renew the registration, according to Michelle French, Denton County’s tax assessor/collector.

To renew their registration, violators must contact the municipality where the infraction occurred and pay their ticket, she said.

Redflex officials at the company’s corporate office in Phoenix declined a request for information.

Lights, everywhere

Between 2006 and 2009, the red-light camera program in Denton generated more than $771,000 in gross revenue but cost more than $1 million to run, according to city officials.

Despite the poor financial performance, the city renewed its contract with Redflex for another five years with two optional five-year extensions.

In 2010, the city installed red-light cameras at two additional intersections: Fort Worth Drive at Interstate 35E, and U.S. Highway 380 at Mayhill Road. The expansion brought the number of cameras to nine at six intersections, according to an informal staff report delivered to the City Council.

The council approved a contract with Redflex in September 2012, claiming it was a key component of Denton’s implementation of the “scofflaw” provision of Chapter 707 of the Texas Transportation Code, a program that allows the Texas Department of Transportation to place registration holds on vehicles that have outstanding red-light camera violations.

The financial situation turned around, according to city records. Between 2009 and 2013, red-light cameras raked in more than $2.5 million and cost $1.8 million for the city to operate.

In 2013, nine cameras captured 12,308 red-light violations, with Denton police approving 95 percent of the citations they received from Redflex.

But the following year, the number of violations increased to 35,146 red-light violations with 82 percent of them being approved by Denton police.

Although six additional cameras were installed, the increase in number alone doesn’t explain the rise in violations. It’s the positioning of the cameras.

Hildebrand said red-light cameras at Fort Worth Drive and I-35E and at University Drive and I-35 caught a high ratio of violations — about 33 percent of them — due to motorists utilizing the “California stop.”

“That’s even with the officer giving [violators] the benefit of the doubt,” Hilbebrand said. “They pass the stop line but come to a stop, so we’re dismissing those.”

Money, money, money

In May 2014, the city was paying a total of $73,050 per month for 15 red-light cameras with an annual expenditure of $876,000 for the camera contract, according to the staff report.

Operational expenses for fiscal year 2014-15 are projected to increase to $78,000. The city pays about $24,000 annually for scofflaw registration holds.

A year ago, Capt. Scott Fletcher told the Record-Chronicle that police have seen a downward trend in red-light traffic violations since the start of the program.

In 2013, the city saw a 13.3 percent reduction in violations at its nine camera approaches and additional cameras were ordered for other intersections across the city, Fletcher said.

Half of the profit the city receives from red-light cameras is sent to the state to fund area hospital trauma centers, according to Fletcher. The other half is used to fund the city’s traffic safety enforcement equipment and improvements.

“There is also no indication that the presence of red light cameras has increased the rate of rear-end collisions,” Fletcher wrote in the May 2 staff report.

But researchers with Texas A&M University’s Transportation Institute analyzed data from 32 Texas cities in December 2012 and found rear-end collisions had actually increased 37 percent at intersections with red-light cameras installed.

Some people believe part of the problem involves the length of the yellow-light interval before changing to red.

On Dec. 2, Denton resident Read King approached the City Council and discussed several studies that found red-light cameras were an ineffective tool for reducing violations and collisions.

King said that to provide for safer intersections — which is the reason he assumes the city is implementing red-light cameras — traffic engineers need to increase the duration of the yellow caution light.

“There’s a safety benefit of longer yellow light intervals,” King said at the council meeting.

King quoted from a 2004 Texas Department Transportation study in which traffic engineers noted that when the interval was increased by one second, red-light violations decreased by more than 50 percent and collisions by 40 percent.

“I would recommend getting rid of the red-light cameras at the 15 intersections where they are currently deployed and increase the yellow light duration at every intersection within your jurisdiction,” he said.

King urged the council to reverse the decision to oppose legislation banning the cameras.

“And please don’t use my tax dollars to lobby for revenue for more red-light cameras,” he said before leaving the podium.

Council requested the studies King had quoted and asked for another informal staff report by John Davis, director of engineering services. He delivered it on Dec. 12 with the conclusion that yellow-light timing has nothing to do with whether red-light cameras are needed for safety reasons.

Davis’ report said the federally mandated Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices, the federal standard for traffic control, indicates the yellow light should last 3 to 6 seconds before changing to red.

“Providing adequate yellow signal time is important and can reduce crashes,” Davis wrote, “but this alone doesn’t eliminate the need for or potential benefits of red light cameras.”

Davis’ report also said some studies have found that red-light cameras provide a deterrent, a “spillover effect,” at other intersections throughout the city.

Davis said the city’s system makes the traffic lights red for 1.5 to 3 seconds in all directions at an intersection. This allows traffic to clear the intersection before anyone gets a green light.

“The City’s use of an ‘All Red’ interval accomplishes the same reduction in accidents as extending the yellow light interval,” Davis claimed. “[This] also reduces accident conflicts with the cross-street where some drivers tend to use all available yellow light interval timing period.”

CHRISTIAN McPHATE can be reached at 940-566-6878 and on Twitter at @writerontheedge.

CAMERA LOCATIONS

Denton currently has 15 photo enforcement cameras. They are located at the following locations:

• Oak Street at Carroll Boulevard

• Shady Oaks at Woodrow Lane

• Fort Worth Drive and Interstate 35E (northbound and southbound service roads)

• South Loop 288 at Spencer Road

• South Loop 288 and I-35E (northbound service road)

• Lillian Miller Parkway and I-35E (southbound service road)

• East University Drive and Mayhill Road (both directions on East University Drive)

• Bell Avenue and East Hickory Street (northbound on Bell Avenue and eastbound on Hickory Street)

• Mayhill Road and Spencer Road (both directions on Mayhill Road)

• West University Drive and I-35 (northbound and southbound service roads)