Camera concerns: Safety, privacy, cost

Traffic slows approaching a school zone on South Southeast Loop 323 in Tyler. Controversy is raging locally over a plan put forth by Smith County Commissioners Court to install unmanned cameras in school zones to catch speeders. Andrew D. Brosig/Tyler Morning Telegraph

Smith County Judge Joel Baker announced on Saturday he's putting a controversial unmanned cameras program on pause, after encountering resistance from area law enforcement, elected officials and the public.

He said before the program begins, he'll seek more input.

"My hope then is for all stakeholders in the county, cities and their schools join this important discussion," he said.

A review of the contract shows Smith County could owe a Phoenix-based company thousands of dollars as soon as a school zone camera system is implemented. The contract was signed last January but announced just last week.

The county would owe American Traffic Solutions more than $43,500 for the first month of the 10-year contract and possibly $37,500 per month thereafter, plus the county's 50 percent share of the school zone speeding tickets issued by unmanned cameras.

In a statement released on Saturday, Baker said the county will not owe the company any money up front — "all charges are billed against the revenue generated by speeding drivers," he said.

One of the terms of the contract that Smith County already has failed to meet is the cooperation of Smith County Tax Assessor/Collector Gary Barber. ATS wants Barber's office to be its enforcement division, by withholding vehicle registrations for nonpayment of the tickets — which are civil citations.

But Barber said last week he would not pursue scofflaws and deny vehicle registrations for civil citations. He said he would continue to withhold registrations for outstanding criminal fines, including for speeding tickets — issued by police.

The contract states Smith County agrees to "pay instead a fixed monthly fee of $7,500 per camera system per month, plus 50 percent paid citation" if it does not pursue collections on unpaid violations, waives or fails to timely process more than 10 percent of valid violations, raises the speed threshold beyond agreed levels or does not institute a registration hold.

Smith County has ordered five cameras, according to ATS.

Barber said the Texas Legislature is considering a law that would prohibit the use of unmanned ticketing devices and would prevent tax assessor collectors from denying vehicle registrations for civil citations. Barber said he doesn't feel civil citations warrant withholding registrations.

"Most tax assessors in the state don't enforce (civil citations)," he said.

 

CAMERAS

On Monday, Baker sent out a press release informing the media about a mobile school zone camera program the county would implement. The program is designed to reduce speeding in school zones. Automated cameras and radar gear are housed in a nondescript vehicle, which law enforcement officers leave parked near a school zone.

Drivers who exceed the speed limit beyond a certain threshold would be ticketed via ATS's AutoPatrol Speed Compliance Cameras. The tickets will cost $150 — with half to go into county coffers and the other half to ATS.

The contract with ATS was approved by county commissioners in August and signed in January.

ATS spokesman Charles Territo said one tower and four SUV-style mobile camera systems have been purchased and are being readied for implementation during the 2015-2016 school year.

Territo said the county will not incur any upfront cost and that citations are designed to pay for the camera systems that enhance school zone safety.

He was unclear whether Barber's stance to not pursue scofflaws violates the agreement and would require the county pay $7,500 per camera per month plus the 50 percent share of each citation as a flat fee.

"I can't answer that question," he said. "That's one for the lawyers to work out, but as with any new program, we work with the customer to ensure their program is successful and accomplishes the goal, which is reducing speeding in school zones."

Since Monday's announcement, one county commissioner who was not present for the approval vote has expressed strong opposition to the program. Two other commissioners have voiced concerns that the program was unveiled without input from school districts, other elected officials and the public.

If commissioners want out of the contract, the county would be on the hook for $120,000 per mobile speed safety system, or $600,000 for early termination, according to the terms. The termination fee reduces $2,000 per unit, per month over five years. 

The county is required to pay for services during an initial "warning" month, which gives motorists time to get used to the devices, without being charged $150.

Smith County's contract requires the county pay, $8,700 per camera, or $43,500, plus $2 per notice for the "warning" month.

On Tuesday, Baker said the cameras are a viable — and free — way to reduce speeds in school zones.

"It is a public safety issue," he said. "These are proven to reduce speeds. It is something we can do at no cost to taxpayers. We do not put the capital costs into it. We do not have personnel involved — it is at no cost to us. This is a tool we can use. It doesn't have to be used, but it is a tool we can offer and that's what we are doing. It's a public safety mechanism."

 

ENFORCEMENT

Baker said the cameras would not be placed where they were unwanted, and if the city of Tyler or other jurisdictions were not if favor of them, then the county would not force the issue. He said three school districts expressed interest to implement them in a meeting on Monday but declined to identify those districts.

Troup ISD Superintendent Stuart Bird said the devices served no purpose in his district and opposed them. Other administrators voiced apprehension but openness to the idea. Winona ISD Superintendent Denise Shetter said the district doesn't oppose the devices, but felt left out of the discussion. She said more discussions would need to take place before the devices were supported in Winona school zones.

A school resource officer, the Smith County Sheriff's Office, Precinct 4 Constable's office, city of Winona police and the Texas Department of Public Safety patrols school zones on any given day, she said. 

The largest school district in Smith County, Tyler ISD, has remained largely silent on the issue. TISD Superintendent Marty Crawford said the cameras would be left to the board to discuss.

"Tyler ISD will review the recent proposal and discuss it with the board of trustees," Crawford said in a prepared statement. "We look forward to continuing our work with the city of Tyler and Smith County on all initiatives that make our community safer for children."

The county's tentative timeline would include rolling the cameras out over the summer to patrol designated school zones during summer school.

"The idea is that school districts can see how it works and others in the community can see how it works," Baker said Tuesday.

 

EFFECTIVENESS

The cameras would have a designated allowable threshold for alleged speeders, and issue tickets if they exceed a certain amount. Baker wouldn't say exactly how fast a car would have to go above the speed limit to get a ticket, but said drivers would have to be "obviously speeding."

The ATS contract requires the speed variable to be below 7 mph over the limit in school zones during pick-up and drop-off times or less than 10 mph above the limit "in all other locations and at all other times."

Use of speed cameras has increased around the country despite backlash in some areas, where unmanned "red light" cameras have been prohibited via ordinance, state legislation or voter petition.

In 1995, there were three jurisdictions using speed zone cameras, but as of April, 133 municipalities or counties reported using them, said Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Use of red light cameras, conversely, peaked and are beginning to decline, he said.

Wes Volberding, a Tyler attorney, said the cameras are unpopular, but they are likely constitutional.

"Texas courts have not considered whether school zone cameras are constitutional, but will likely find cameras serve a valid traffic purpose," he said via email. "Most courts in other states have found automatic cameras constitutional."

But the cameras do open potential for violations of privacy, he said.

"Automatic cameras send tickets to the owner of the vehicle, who may not be the driver," Volberding said. "The photos become public records. Cities can create databases of photos. The photos can be used for other purposes, and a private company takes over law enforcement and gets half the money."

A 2010 review published by the Cochrane Collaboration, an international public health organization, examined 35 studies from various countries, Volberding said. The study showed speed cameras — including fixed, mobile, overt and covert devices — cut average speeds by 1 to 15 percent and the percentage of speeding vehicles above the speed limits or designated speed thresholds by 14 to 65 percent compared with sites without cameras, he said.

The Insurance Institute is in favor of speed cameras, but recommends heavy police involvement in the program for its success.

"There needs to be strong police oversight of the program, and when these programs are done correctly and there is heavy police involvement in deciding where the cameras go, targeting those intersections where there is a red light running problem and (ensuring a) police officer reviews the images and the video footage to ensure is a legitimate violation," Rader said.

"Speed cameras have been shown to reduce speeds and crashes," Rader said. "They substantially reduce the proportion of drivers exceeding the speed limit by 10 miles an hour or more over the posted limit."

A 2011 study done by the Center for Transportation Safety at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute examined 11,000 crash records at 275 intersections where cameras where red light cameras were in place. The study then compared the data to compared crash frequencies one, two and three years before and after installation of the cameras, according to the transportation institute.

The study found a 23 percent drop from one year before to one year after cameras were put into use. Crashes decreased by 27 percent in the second year of the cameras' placement, the study found.

 

OBJECTIONS

Still, the city of Tyler is opposed to Smith County's use of the cameras.

"We are firmly opposed to the use of this program within our jurisdiction and will use our resources to oppose its implementation in the school zones within the city limits," Mayor Martin Heines said in a letter to Judge Baker on April 25. "We are firm believers in a unified city and county, but this potentially disastrous program by the county that impacts our citizens was moved forward without any input from us."

Smith County Sheriff Larry Smith and Tyler Police Chief Gary Swindle also object to the program.

The sheriff spoke out on Tuesday, saying he has asked Smith County District Attorney Matt Bingham's office to ask for a Texas Attorney General ruling in the matter, since Texas law says a county traffic officer must be deputized by the sheriff or a constable. Under Baker's plan, the school zone cameras would be run by the county fire marshal's office.

Swindle said the main deterrent to speeding in school zones is an active and visible police force, and said the cameras do not give the driver an opportunity to plead their case to an officer who could educate them on the dangers of speeding. 

 

 

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