Thursday, January 12, 2012

Stop! Give Me Your Money!

Red-light running isn't smart. Red-light running isn't safe. Red-light running kills. But cities that wanted to do something about it faced a quandary: the cost of putting extra patrols at every intersection to catch red-light runners was prohibitively expensive. So, local government did what private industry had already done (to combat shoplifting, for example): use cameras to automate the task, reducing labor costs. Suddenly, it became practical to enforce a common sense traffic regulation that even two-year-olds know: a red light means stop. (A yellow light, on the other hand, means something else altogether.)

Then, a funny thing happened on the road to highway safety. After the jump, we follow the money.

A lot of people didn't like the idea of automating enforcement of traffic laws. A few of the critics were probably flagrant red-light runners themselves and didn't want anyone interfering with their own unsafe driving habits. Some critics just had an uneasy feeling about the Big Brother aspects of the program. And some anti-government critics saw any enforcement as a money grab by local government.

And so, a funny thing happened on the road to highway safety. The Texas state government said, in effect, that we don't want cities using red-light camera programs to pad their own coffers. To prevent this, the state legislature passed a law saying that a portion of the revenues collected from tickets had to be passed on to the state. The state promised to use the revenues to fund trauma centers.

Regular watchers of state government could have predicted how this would play out. Sure enough, the state is sitting on $46 million collected from cities' red-light camera programs, and instead of funding trauma centers with it, the state is using the money to pad its own coffers, helping it pretend to have a balanced budget. In other words, state legislators used accusations of greed on the part of local governments to justify taking the money for themselves, and then became guilty of greed themselves in hanging onto the money instead of using it for its promised purpose. Meanwhile, the doctors and nurses in trauma centers who have to deal with the tragic consequences of red-light running are short-changed. And so are the cities who wanted to pay for a program that actually reduces the need for those trauma centers in the first place. The irony would be amusing, if people's lives weren't at stake, literally.

The Austin American-Statesman has the latest story on this (reporting on a story in The Dallas Morning News). But Houston's KHOU had the story a year ago, cited right here on The Wheel in September, 2010.


Nathan Morgan said...

The vast majority of traffic safety regulation violations do not result in any harm, except for the uncaptured revenue that would otherwise be collected by a missed opportunity to prosecute.

We must remember that the traffic laws were enacted, not to provide a revenue stream for municipal operations or to justify a police force, but to establish rules that drivers observe in order to assure roadway safety.

Rolling through a red light or stop sign when there is no traffic hazard poses no threat to traffic safety. Yet, countless citations are issued. One can only assume the original intent of the traffic safety rules is often held secondary to the desire to extract revenue from drivers who cause no hazard.

Fiscally responsible communities have well planned, viable means of funding local government that do not include shaking down the public at every turn.

Mark Steger said...

From The Dallas Morning News:

"Police say the car was traveling at more than twice the posted limit at impact. The boy was dragged 400 feet before the driver was able to stop, according to the police report. She told officers that she was on her way to work and was trying to beat a yellow light, although a witness at the scene told police that woman ran the red light, the police report said."

Nathan Morgan said...

It doesn't appear the red light camera had anything to do with that accident. It sounds like bad planning and foot-feed abuse to me.