Saturday, June 2, 2007

The Legislature Gets Something Right For Once

There hasn't been a whole lot about this in the news that I've been aware of, but the Texas Legislature sent a bill to the Governor on May 29 to regulate the authority of local governments to install red light cameras and to collect fines for alleged violations recorded by those cameras. These things have been springing up in Houston over the last few months, and I do not like them one little bit. The stated justification for them is that they will help to prevent rear-end collisions, but I don't think that that's the real reason that the City was so eager to set the cameras up. Rather, I suspect that the prospect of an easy, consistent, and low-cost revenue stream proved to be too much of a temptation for the mayor and city council to resist. Why? Well, if they were that concerned by accidents caused by drivers running red lights, they would have increased the yellow-light times, which is much more effective than red-light cameras have been in other jurisdictions. This is an important point in more ways than one: increasing yellow-light times decreases the incidence of red-light running; but if a jurisdiction has red light cameras, it also reduces the amount of revenue that that jurisdiction can collect from those red-light cameras. In other words, it is in the monetary interest of a jurisdiction to yellow-light times, which increases the incidence of the very accidents that proponents of red light cameras claim they're trying to prevent. Red light cameras give jurisdictions a financial incentive to degrade public safety; and because of that, installing them is very bad public policy.

I would have preferred that the Texas Legislature just prohibited Texas municipalities from installing red light cameras at all. There wasn't the support for that, apparently, so they did the next best thing: they forced municipalities to put their money where their mouths are:
Sec. 707.008. DEPOSIT OF REVENUE FROM CERTAIN TRAFFIC PENALTIES. (a) Not later than the 60th day after the end of a local authority's fiscal year, after deducting amounts the local authority is authorized by Subsection (b) to retain, the local authority shall: (1) send 50 percent of the revenue derived from civil or administrative penalties collected by the local authority under this section to the comptroller for deposit to the credit of the regional trauma account established under Section 782.002, Health and Safety Code; and (2) deposit the remainder of the revenue in a special account in the local authority's treasury that may be used only to fund traffic safety programs, including pedestrian safety programs, public safety programs, intersection improvements, and traffic enforcement.
In other words, half of the money collected in fines by way of red light cameras goes to the state. The other half can only be used to fund traffic safety and enforcement programs. This bill removes the financial incentive for local governments to degrade traffic safety to increase the fines they collect because they no longer get any general-fund money from those fines. Not only that, but the bill also requires local governments that install red light cameras to report yearly to the state about the incidence and severity of accidents at intersections with the red light cameras and to evaluate whether the red light cameras are helping or hurting public safety.
I don't think the results will be favorable to red light cameras, but let's see what happens. Of course, local governments may stop rolling these these things out now; so we may not get much of a trial.

Let's hope that Governor Perry signs this bill forthwith.

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