Lights Out

Texas is the latest state to ban all red-light cameras.
by | September 2019
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When Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed a new law this year banning red-light traffic cameras in Texas, he chose not to go with a formal ceremony attended by a collection of dignitaries. Instead, he posted the news in a 25-second video on Twitter. He offered no explanation or commentary, just a faint smile. But, judging by the reaction, people loved it. The video has been seen more than 1.5 million times and “liked” more than 64,000 times.

Red-light cameras have always been controversial, as drivers fume when they’re caught taking illegal turns or belatedly trying to get through a crowded intersection. Texas lawmakers have considered banning them since 2007. But a bill finally cleared the legislature this year, after Abbott complained that the cameras at intersections “pose constitutional issues.” Abbott, the state’s former attorney general, suggested that the traffic cameras violate people’s right to confront their accuser in court.

Safety advocates criticized the new law, arguing that it would make streets more dangerous and lead to more traffic deaths in the state. Abbott’s decision to sign the bill seemed to conflict with an order from the Texas Transportation Commission just days earlier to require the state transportation department to join the Vision Zero movement, with the goal of eliminating traffic deaths by 2050. Currently, about 10 people die every day on Texas roads. “We hate to see this,” says Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), which supports the use of traffic cameras. “It’s really a gut punch for all of us when this happens because we know the cost, which is that more people will be hurt and die in crashes.”

That’s the conclusion of an IIHS study that looked at the change in traffic fatality rates when cities added or removed red-light cameras. In 14 cities that shut down their red-light cameras between 2010 and 2014, the fatal red-light-running crash rate was 30 percent higher than would have been expected if they had left the cameras on. The rate of fatal crashes at signalized intersections was 16 percent higher.

A separate study found a similar impact when Houston pulled the plug on its intersection cameras in 2011. The city saw a 23 percent increase in right-angle red-light crashes at intersections that previously had cameras.

Despite the safety benefits, the number of jurisdictions in the country using red-light cameras has declined every year since 2012. Eleven states, including Texas, now ban them altogether. Rader says one reason is that many communities seemed to treat them as revenue-generating devices rather than safety tools, leading to widespread citizen dissatisfaction. That’s why a number of safety groups have developed strategies for red-light camera systems that stress transparency and deployment based on safety considerations.

Another reason, though, is more visceral, Rader says. “People don’t like to get tickets.”