“This article is not true … so WTF?” is one of several online comments I received after a recent story. In “Confessions of a Scofflaw” (May 3), I wrote that “tickets generated by red light cameras aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on,” going on to say that motorists who receive a citation after their vehicles are photographed running through a red light could file those tickets in the circular cabinet without repercussion.
Another wrote: “Same here, I have a scofflaw hold, too, from Fort Worth.”
Since 2011, a statewide “scofflaw” rule allows county tax assessor-collectors to place holds on the auto registrations of licensed drivers who don’t pay their red-light camera tickets. That law is the only leverage that cities currently have. Motorists in some counties are unable to have the holds released unless they pay their tickets first.
However, some county tax assessor-collectors have refused to enforce those holds. Tarrant County’s Ron Wright is among them. So local motorists have no reason to pay red-light tickets issued by cameras, unless these folks just feel like giving money to the city, state, and camera vendors, who all divvy up the money.
Several callers expressed similar complaints about the story, saying they were unable to release the holds on their auto registrations without forking over money: $75 with an extra $25 added for late fees. Half of the money goes to the state to help pay for regional trauma centers. The rest goes to cities that typically pay red-light camera vendors to install and maintain the equipment in exchange for a cut of the action. Revenues are in the tens of millions of dollars statewide.
Readers who complained about our article described various situations in which they went to renew their registrations but were prevented because of scofflaw holds. However, in each of those cases, the motorist was attempting to renew his or her registration at a retail outlet such as a Walmart or Fiesta. Circumventing the hold requires renewing your registration through the mail or in person at one of the eight tax assessor-collector locales spread around Tarrant County, not at the supermarket.
“We will process their registration,” tax collector Wright told me. “If they try to do it in a grocery store or online, the [state] system will not allow that registration to go through. But if they come to our office, we override that and issue the registration.”
Fort Worth allowed the implementation of red light cameras in January 2008. Currently there are 58 cameras at 44 intersections generating about $9 million a year in fines. After paying the camera vendor about $3 million, Fort Worth and the state split the rest. Fort Worth also collects late fees that do not have to be split with the state. Fort Worth spends its share on traffic signals and signs and other intersection improvements to eliminate accidents.
About 37,000 citations were issued in Fort Worth in 2008. That number has increased every year, according to records provided by the city. In 2016, more than 231,000 citations were issued. That would have generated $17 million if everyone paid his fine on time.
But many motorists have stopped paying the fines altogether over the years because unpaid red-light camera tickets don’t lead to arrest warrants or bad credit reports. Some counties began relying on the scofflaw rule passed in the late 1990s to allow them to place holds on auto registrations for unpaid traffic fines, including red-light camera tickets.
City officials have long praised the cameras for improving traffic safety. A city official provided a fact sheet that shared information and safety studies done statewide and in other cities, but little of it is specific to Fort Worth. Examples: Nearly a fourth of all traffic fatalities in Texas in 2015 occurred at or near an intersection. In 2016, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety said red light cameras in 79 large U.S. cities saved almost 1,300 lives. And a Houston Chronicle report showed that in the four years after Houston banned the cameras, crashes increased 117 percent and fatal collisions rose 30 percent.
Former tax assessor-collector Betsy Price had quietly begun enforcing the registration holds before she became mayor in 2011. Her replacement, Wright, ended the practice after taking office. He recalled receiving a visit from a group of city staff members not long afterward urging him to enforce the holds. They said his refusal to block registrations was costing the city $87,000 a week, Wright said. None of them mentioned safety, he said.
Wright said he told the group that it was not the tax assessor’s role to collect ticket money or enforce holds on registrations as leverage over motorists. He felt it was the city’s responsibility. At the same time, other cities around Tarrant County were asking his office to enforce the holds for them as well. Wright made a blanket refusal.
“It’s a bit awkward because I have contracts to collect taxes for all these taxing entities, including all but two of the cities” in Tarrant County, he said. “I can understand why they would want me to do it, but I’m not going to, and they’re not happy about it. I’m not backing down on this.”
Wright consulted with Tarrant County commissioners, who “had no appetite for it either,” he said.
Proponents say the cameras promote safer driving by slowing down motorists at intersections, thus reducing accidents and fatalities. Critics say the cameras violate civil liberties since they operate on the basis of guilty until proven innocent. Tickets also are issued to the owner of the vehicle rather than the driver. And around the country, critics have claimed that cities reduce yellow light times to increase the number of red light violations – thereby increasing revenues.
The National Motorists Association, a nationwide grassroots alliance since 1982, keeps track of cities using short yellow light times. Dallas made the list in 2007 after an investigation by KDFW-TV found that the 10 red light cameras that generated the largest number of citations were at intersections with yellow lights shorter than the minimum recommended by the Texas Department of Transportation.
Wright and the county commissioners aren’t the only ones resisting the trend toward making tax assessors the high sheriffs when it comes to red-light cameras. Wright is among the dozens of conservative leaders and grassroots activists around the state to sign a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott on June 26 asking him to put the issue before lawmakers in this year’s special session, which began on Tuesday.
“We need your support to ban red light cameras, period,” the letter said.
The Texas Senate has voted to ban red light cameras in recent years, but the bills have stalled in the House.
“Every now and then, the elected officials have to listen to the people they represent,” Wright said. “The people don’t like these [red light cameras]. One of the really basic tenets of our justice system says you get to face your accuser. In this case, your accuser is a machine.”