If Texas cities want to fine drivers into the poor house, they're going to have to do it the old-fashioned way—with actual law enforcement officers. A bill to ban red light cameras has passed the Texas Legislature and is heading to Gov. Greg Abbott's desk. He's expected to sign it.
Red light cameras were allegedly introduced to reduce collisions with an automated system that sent tickets and fines to those who ran through intersections. Or, at least, that's what drivers were told.
The reality is that cities use red light cameras as a source of revenue, not for public safety. In Chicago, Illinois, a former city official was sent to prison for taking bribes from a red light camera company. Chicago raked in hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue from the camera tickets, and at one point these machines appeared to be malfunctioning and sending out hundreds of tickets inappropriately.
More recently, the state of Oregon attempted to target a man with threats of punishment for challenging the timing and duration of yellow lights, accusing him of misrepresenting himself as an engineer (he is, in fact, an engineer, but not licensed in Oregon). The state tried unsuccessfully to fine him.
Some cities and states have pinned a lot of their budget numbers on this revenue, which creates some pretty twisted incentives. The Dallas Morning News notes that Dallas drew in nearly $6 million from red-light camera fines in 2018. Half of the money goes to the city. The other half gets directed toward trauma hospitals in the state.
But there's actually very little evidence that red light cameras actually improve public safety. Study after study often says the opposite, and some communities have stopped using them without being directed to by their state governments. HB 1631 in Texas will forbid the use of red light cameras across the state, and the evidence from these cameras cannot be used for charges or citations. The bill allows municipalities to honor their contracts with private camera operators until they expire, so it may be a few years before they disappear—in Fort Worth, the city contract runs through 2026. But the bill also forbids county and state official from refusing to register a car on the basis of having unpaid red-light camera tickets.
Assuming Abbott signs the bill into law, this is great news for citizens, especially in cities that blanket their neighborhoods with cameras to eke out money.
Mind you, Texas is still a state where speed traps rule and cities and counties bring in millions in revenue from writing tickets. And those tools of petty enforcement can be used and abused to torment people when officers get angry over any challenge to their authority (See: Sandra Bland). But at least one terrible tool used to milk citizens out of their money is taking the exit ramp.