Barreling through red lights can be dangerous. No rational person would say otherwise. But red light cameras take enforcement too far. My 11-year-old Ford pickup with 225,000 miles on it and at least three major brake jobs over the years can’t stop on a dime. Taking a full-size, 4,000-pound pickup from 55 mph to a dead stop in the three or four seconds typically allowed by yellow lights isn’t always feasible. That’s why I barreled through a red light on a Roanoke highway last year.
The Roanoke citation is probably the fourth ticket I’ve received via red light cameras in the past 10 years. About once every two years I make a split-second decision, decide wrong, and get a camera ticket. When I sail through the red light, however, it’s just a second after the light has changed and well before the drivers waiting in the cross streets are given the green light to go. There is a difference between voluntarily running a red light, trying to beat a yellow light, or deciding against possibly cratering your entire braking system to bring two tons of metal to a screeching stop in three seconds because some anal-retentive camera in some greedy-ass town is trying to catch you missing a light by a hair, allowing them to legally extort $75 from you.
This time, I decided to keep my wallet in my pocket. Sorry, Roanoke.
After a month or so, Roanoke sent a warning about my unpaid ticket. It went in the trash. In January, the city sent a default notice saying, “Your failure to pay the $75 civil penalty has resulted in an additional late payment penalty of $25 and could result in a civil court action against you.” The notice listed a city ordinance that allows Roanoke to pursue debts, including interest and penalties, via a civil suit. The letter was serious and threatening. Another notice came in March under the heading “Scofflaw Vehicle Registration Hold Notice,” saying that the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles was placing a hold on my registration for my refusal to pay the $100. “You will not be able to renew your registration without proof of payment for the outstanding amount due,” the letter continued.
Damn. I fought the law, and the law won. Or did it?
Before I pulled out my credit card, I decided to google “scofflaw,” “registration holds,” and “Texas.” The results were enlightening.
The Texas Transportation Code pretty much neuters red light cameras. The tickets are civil violations rather than convictions and do not trigger arrest warrants or bad marks on driving records. Creditors and insurance companies are not notified, and the law limits penalties to $75 and late payments to $25.
The cameras have courted controversy for years. Supporters say the cameras enforce the law, punish lawbreakers, improve driver safety by prompting motorists to slow down at intersections, and provide money for cities. Detractors say the cameras violate the Sixth Amendment, since motorists are deemed guilty before having their day in court, and the tickets are issued to the owner of the car rather than the driver. Also, critics say the cameras are less about safety and more about encouraging cities to reduce yellow light times, increase the number of red light violations, and boost revenue streams.
Many Texans refused to pay camera tickets during the 2000s. A Dallas Morning News survey of a dozen North Texas cities in 2011 showed that about a third of the tickets went unpaid, resulting in millions of dollars of lost revenue. The Texas Legislature passed the scofflaw bill in 2011 that permitted counties to withhold auto registrations for people with unpaid fines. Some counties, including Denton and Dallas counties, enforce the registration holds.
Tarrant County Tax Assessor-Collector Ron Wright was quoted by several different media outlets back then saying that his office would not be spending the extra time and money needed to enforce the scofflaw program. I called Wright a few days ago to ask if he had changed its stance since then.
He hadn’t. Red light cameras are controversial and consistently being challenged by residents, Wright said. Clerks in the county tax office should not have to withhold auto registrations as leverage to force people to pay red light tickets.
“As long as I’m tax assessor-collector, we will not block registrations for red light cameras,” Wright said. “We are here to collect taxes, not red light camera fines. That is something the city imposes, and the city needs to collect. There are too many issues with it, and the tax assessor-collector’s office should not be involved in it.”
This neuters the enforcement power of red light cameras for Tarrant County residents. You register your auto in the county where you live. Red light cameras can generate all the tickets they want across the state. And red light camera companies can send all the threatening letters they want about withholding your auto registration for unpaid tickets. However, it is up to the county tax assessor-collector to issue or withhold the registrations. Tarrant County’s tax collector says he is not messing with it –– unlike Dallas County’s tax collector. County tax collectors make up their owns minds what to do about it. In Tarrant County, we get to deposit those threatening letters into File 13. Dallas County residents will have to pay their fines or see their registrations withheld. Bummer.
In February, a bill filed in the Texas Senate cited the “deep flaws in many cities’ equipment and enforcement methods” and noted that the tickets violate people’s Sixth Amendment rights. Senate Bill 87, if passed, would eliminate counties from placing holds on auto registrations because of delinquent fines for red light camera tickets.
To Wright, I say, “Thank you. ” To Roanoke, I say, “Eat me.”