Red light cams losing money after drivers don't pay


by KELI RABON / KVUE News and Photojournalist JOHN GIBSON

Posted on February 29, 2012 at 10:48 PM

Updated Thursday, Mar 1 at 11:51 AM

AUSTIN -- The City of Austin's red light camera program has generated nearly 40,000 tickets since its inception in 2008, but a KVUE News/Austin American-Statesman investigation uncovered many drivers are refusing to pay the fines.
Advocates of the cameras say the program was designed to reduce violent crashes and promote safer streets, but after receiving a $75 ticket in the mail last year, Austin driver Linda Wandt disagrees.
"They're lying. It's not about public safety. It's about making money," Wandt said.
KVUE and the Statesman's investigation uncovered the program actually lost money in 2011, due in part to fewer citations being issued and drivers failing to pay their tickets. Records show 25 percent of ticketed drivers have not paid their tickets, adding up to more than $800,000 uncollected fines.
"I'm glad that people aren't paying their tickets. I don't think they should be paying the tickets," Wandt said.
The Defenders found some drivers have racked up as much as $900 in unpaid tickets. So far, not much has been done to make them pay.
"There's not really alot we can do about that," municipal court clerk Rebecca Stark said.
Stark admits red light tickets are practically unenforceable. While unpaid parking tickets can lead to booting and towing, and old traffic violations can prompt arrest warrants, ignoring a red light ticket doesn't create serious reprecussions. 
"I think that's one of the reasons fewer people pay," Stark said.
After 30 days of non-payment, Stark says the standard $75 fine jumps to $100. Six months to a year later, the ticket is sent to collection agency but will not affect your credit score. 
Some cities take it a step further.
"There is a program that would have to be approved by the city council where we might be able to hold the registration renewal," Stark said.
Vehicle registration holds have had minimal success in other cities and state law prohibits booting and towing for red light camera fines, leaving the City with few options.
Defenders Investigator Keli Rabon asked Stark what incentive a person has to pay the fine.
"Good citizenship. That's about all," Stark said.
Mayor Lee Leffingwell isn't worried about the drop in revenue just yet.
"If it were about money, raising money, we never would have done it," Leffingwell said.
While the City looks for new ways to collect outstanding fines, Leffingwell wants to expand the program -- moving cameras from three underperforming intersections and adding six more locations.
"As the city grows, the number of intersections grows. It certainly makes sense to keep pace," Leffingwell said.
Police Chief Art Acevedo says the cameras have cut crashes at 10 intersections by 44 percent. 
"That's what this data shows. It is causing people to make better choices, which is stop for the red light," Acevedo said. 
Acevedo hopes drivers pay their tickets, but recognizes the City can't force anyone to pay.
"People that don't pay, need to pay, and if we're not doing everything we can to require them to pay, we need to do that," Acevedo said.
Not everyone is convinced. Wandt sees moving and adding cameras as an attempt to make up the money in unpaid tickets.
"They're moving the three that weren't making enough money and moving them to other intersections to see if those will make more money," she said.
If she had known red light tickets were unenforceable, Wandt says she wouldn't have paid her fine either.
The City says if you run a red light, it hopes you pay.
"If you owe the ticket, you should pay the price," Acevedo said. 
If you receive a red light camera citation from Redflex, the company that administers Austin’s camera program, you can visit to review pictures and video of your citation.
The vehicle owner has 30 days to notify the court that the he or she would like to schedule a hearing to contest the ticket. Austin Municipal Court is located at 700 E. 7th St, Austin, TX 78701 and its phone number is 512-974-4800.
Additionally, the vehicle owner can sign an affidavit swearing that they were not the person driving the vehicle. The court will attempt to pursue the other individual for the ticketed offense.
You can follow investigative reporter Keli Rabon on her Facebook page here.

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