Waco considering cameras to catch red-light scofflaws.

Monday, October 02, 2006

By Cindy V. Culp

Tribune-Herald staff writer

Waco drivers who don’t stop for red lights may soon be out some green.

Local officials are looking at installing cameras at some Waco intersections to help catch and fine people who run red lights and, with any luck, improve traffic safety.

A group of city employees from several departments has been established to study the issue. The group likely will make a decision by the beginning of next year, said Rick Charlton, Waco traffic program administrator.

They plan to attend a symposium in October where other Texas cities that have installed such cameras will talk about their experiences, he said.

“We’re in the fact-gathering stage right now,” Charlton said.

The city decided to research the cameras after Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott issued an opinion this summer that said cities could install traffic enforcement cameras on state roads as long as they get permission from the Texas Department of Transportation. That was important, Charlton said, because portions of some of Waco’s busiest roads are maintained by the state.

If the city wasn’t able to install cameras on those roads, it wouldn’t be worth initiating the program, Charlton said.

Cameras for traffic flow

Some state-maintained roads in Waco include Franklin Avenue, Waco Drive and Valley Mills Drive.

Some local residents are under the impression that the city already records traffic violators, since there are cameras at some intersections. But Charlton said those cameras are solely used to help monitor traffic flow so light cycles can be timed efficiently.

The city probably would not have to invest any money into enforcement cameras, Charlton said. Most cities contract with a company that provides the cameras for free, in exchange for a portion of the fine revenue, he said.

City personnel hope to learn more about such arrangements at the upcoming conference, Charlton said. They also hope to get insight into whether still-photo or video cameras are better for enforcement.

“Whatever we do, we want to do it right the first time,” Charlton said.

City attorney Art Pertile said the legal authority to use red light cameras is clear, thanks to recent Texas court decisions. Some people have tried to object to the cameras on privacy grounds, but that argument isn’t valid, he said, because the cameras are installed on public streets where people have no expectation of privacy.

Many people don’t realize red-light runners are issued civil fines instead of traffic tickets, Pertile said.

Tickets are a punishment for a criminal offense, and prosecutors have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a particular person was driving a vehicle at the time it ran a light, Pertile said.

Because the cameras record only vehicles’ license plates, it would be impossible to meet that standard, Pertile said. But under civil law, it is presumed the person who owns a vehicle was driving it, he said.

Civil fines don’t go on a person’s driving record, he added.

Police chief’s support

Waco Police Chief Alberto Melis said the decision whether to use traffic cameras is up to the city council. City traffic officials would decide where to place them.

Melis said he supports using the cameras.

“The problem with red-light running is pandemic, not just in Waco but everywhere,” Melis said. “This is one answer.”

Melis noted that studies have shown camera installation increases rear-end accidents by 12 percent to 15 percent. That’s because people suddenly slam on their brakes when they see a camera at an intersection.

But the Waco chief said accidents in which one vehicle “T-bones” another decrease by 20 percent after the cameras are installed.

“Those (wrecks) are the ones that kill people,” Melis said. “It’s a good trade-off.”