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.