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Thursday, March 22, 2007

"Smile," you are on Red Light Camera

L-R: KWEX-41 Photographer John Meyers interviewing Balcones Heights Councilman Steve Walker, red-light camera documentation, intersection of Babcock & Hillcrest, camera at the iontersection of Babcock & Hillcrest, warning sign

By Steve Walker
Balcones Heights Councilman

The City of Balcones Heights is hours away from officially activating the red-light cameras. American Traffic Solutions (ATS) will begin issuing citations for red light camera violators on three intersections on Fredericksburg Road and one intersection at Hillcrest and Babcock.

Since our Council’s vote in September to be the first city in Bexar County to install the controversial video tape cameras, some local businesses and residents embrace the idea of adding the red light cameras for safety, while others exhibit reluctance and skepticism that the installation is solely about generating revenue. I am one of them.

As one who doesn’t shy away from answering questions on the controversy on talk radio and in interviews with reporters from radio, television and the print media, I can assure you people have strong views on the issue. I certainly do.

Now that time has passed since that final vote, more research data and statistics have surfaced that could alter people’s perceptions on whether they really support the installation of the red light cameras.

One of my biggest roadblocks for voting to approve the proposal has always been the fact that the ticket issued is a civil violation and not a criminal offense. In other words since Balcones Heights police officers or any other peace officer don’t write the citation, there is no mechanism in place to insure that the red-light runner pay the fine for the infraction.

When a certified peace officer issues a traffic violation, failure to pay may result in arrest, suspension of driver’s license and may affect the driver’s ability to retain insurance at a reasonable cost. None of that applies to the civil citation.

I would point out that there is no real due process to appeal the violation to a judge since it goes before a hearing officer to rule on guilt or innocence.

Since they base the citation on video tape of the automobile’s license plate and not the driver of the vehicle, there is no reliable way to determine accurately who was driving the automobile.

The owner of the vehicle is the one ticketed. He or she receives a summons from ATS, headquartered in Arizona. ATS is also the vendor who installed the video equipment.

According to the five-year contract between the City and the vendor, ATS is responsible to process the citations, collect the traffic fines, and once the fine is paid, send the City a portion of the fine for the infraction. ATS retain $40 for each ticket collected since they own the video cameras.

Statistics coming out of Houston and other cities that are using the Red Light Cameras reveal that violators are not paying the fines. In Houston in the first four months of citations that should have netted $14 million dollars, less than 15 percent of those cited have paid the fine. What is wrong with this picture?

During our discussions with the Arizona based company, they assured us that they would employ every means available to encourage the drivers to pay the fines. Their portion of the ticket is contingent on the motorist paying the fine. If the fine is not paid, ATS and the City will not see any revenue.

During the initial presentation, ATS representatives pointed out that the installation of cameras would reduce traffic accidents and it was all about safety rather than a revenue generating issue. Yet their own numbers revealed that while the number of broadside accidents in intersections decreased somewhat, the rear end collisions increased by 15 percent. One could justifiably argue that we trade one accident for another.

Since September, State Senator John Corona has filed a bill awaiting approval in the Legislature that would mandate that Balcones Heights and all municipalities share the revenue collected from the Red Light Cameras with the state. The state would earmark the revenue they collected into a designated statewide safety program.

State Representative Carl Islett recently filed a bill to abolish red-light cameras all together. Balcones Heights and all other municipalities who have installed red-light cameras will have to wait out the current Legislature to see if either bill will pass.

If Rep. Islett’s bill passes, the controversy becomes a moot point. If Senator Corona’s bill passes, it will affect whether municipalities engage the process and approve installation based on safety factors or generating revenue.

As Balcones Heights anticipates the activation of the red-light cameras on Fredericksburg Road and Hillcrest at Babcock, the surrounding suburbs and San Antonio will be monitoring very closely our progress to determine whether we made a wise decision or not.

As the lone Councilmen who has consistently questioned the validity of this endeavor and voted NO to installing the cameras, I certainly hope my concerns are unfounded. My gut feeling tells me differently.

I must point out that I am not against the idea of red-light cameras since Balcones Heights could use the revenue generated to hire more police officers and firefighters. I would vote for it if classified as a criminal act with consequences.

As an elected official and resident of Balcones Heights, I would encourage you not to run a red light in Balcones Heights. I would strongly encourage you, that if you do, pay the fine.

Welcome to Balcones Heights.

Editor's Note: This commentary is also posted on

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