They may be gone, but they’re not forgotten.
Killeen’s red-light traffic enforcement cameras were removed from five busy intersections last month after being turned off at the end of April.
The question is whether they were effective in reducing accidents, as they were intended to do.
Perhaps the bigger question is how the city will compensate for the loss of revenue they generated.
An article in today’s Herald notes the system’s seven cameras recorded more than 21,200 citations during calendar year 2016 — a total that generated over $434,000 in revenue for the city, after payments to the state and camera system’s parent company.
Since the cameras were turned off this year, police have issued just 43 citations for moving violations at those same intersections, through Nov. 1.
Obviously, the major reason for the drastic drop in citations is that the cameras were in operation 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Logically, patrol officers can only monitor the intersections as scheduling and staffing allow.
Still, despite concerns that the cameras’ removal would cause a major spike in accidents at the previously monitored intersections, that hasn’t been the case.
KPD figures show the city has recorded only 34 accidents at the five intersections that had cameras in the six months since they were inactivated.
That’s an average of fewer than six accidents per month, and just over one accident per intersection each month during that span.
Considering the volume of traffic at those corners, that total is both surprising and gratifying.
It would also seem to raise the question of whether the bulk of the camera-generated citations were for violations that reflected truly dangerous driving habits — or whether a significant number were for lesser infractions, like not coming to a full stop prior to a right turn on red, or not quite exiting the intersection before the light turns red.
A perfect example is the intersection of Lowes Boulevard and Trimmier Road, which had a camera only focused on the righthand westbound lane — ostensibly to catch drivers turning onto Trimmier without stopping fully. The intersection usually ranked among the top three intersections for red-light citations, but since the cameras have been deactivated, only one moving violation has been recorded by KPD.
No doubt, many area residents complained that the city’s red-light camera system was little more than a money grab, and no doubt the financial benefit played into the decision to implement it in the first place. From 2008 to 2016, the cameras generated nearly $3.5 million for the city, figures show.
But Killeen is not alone on that score.
According to figures from the city of Austin, the state capital collected about $5.6 million from its nine red-light cameras between 2009 and July of this year. That averages out to about $700,000 annually. Since 2008, the city of nearly 1 million residents issued 81,000 red-light citations, the figures show.
Killeen’s cameras were installed in 2008, and they were a source of contention from the outset. To many Killeen drivers, the City Council’s decision in April to not renew the city’s contract with Chicago-based Redflex Traffic Systems was a welcome move.
In the nine years since the system’s inception, residents had complained the setup violated drivers’ civil rights because the automated camera system didn’t afford motorists an opportunity to appeal the citation on the spot.
Further, since the cameras didn’t have the capability to identify a vehicle’s driver, the citation was sent to the vehicle’s owner — regardless of who may have been at the wheel at the time of the red-light violation. And it was the owner who was left to pay the $75 fine.
One Killeen lawyer went so far as to challenge the cameras’ constitutionality in a lawsuit, which he subsequently dropped.
Increasingly, drivers chose not to pay the fine, and the city responded by passing an ordinance that would block motorists from renewing their vehicle registrations if they had outstanding traffic citations — as allowed under state law.
Still others claimed that the traffic system caused some drivers to slam on their brakes when the traffic light turned yellow, increasing the risk of rear-end collisions — a factor acknowledged in several traffic studies over the past decade.
While it could be argued that Killeen residents’ driving habits may have improved as a result of the camera system’s presence, the city was probably wise to ditch it when it did.
The state Senate voted three times, including this year, to ban the systems statewide, based on their questionable constitutionality. The Senate also voted this year to prevent cities and counties from blocking vehicle registrations on the basis of unpaid red-light citations. Though the House failed to pass the Senate legislation each time, it was bound to come up again in the next session.
Also, Killeen and several other cities have been under scrutiny for installing the camera system without a prior engineering study at the selected intersections — though city officials maintain Killeen was “grandfathered in” because the system was installed before state guidelines took effect.
For now, Killeen officials must figure out a way to offset the loss of red-light revenue. The city had used the money for traffic improvements, such as signage, street markings and equipment for traffic patrols.
Those things are all important, so it’s crucial that the city find the necessary funding to continue their implementation.
It’s too early to tell whether accidents related to red-light running will increase long-term at the intersections that no longer employ traffic cameras. Nevertheless, KPD must continue to patrol high-traffic intersections on a regular basis to ensure drivers comply with the law. That is a necessary police function that will protect property and save lives.
But the city also must take a look at some of these problematic areas in terms of the intersections’ design. Sharp curves, limited visibility and congested traffic patterns are often just as responsible for accidents at these intersections as the driving habits of those who pass through them.
Looking ahead, there’s little chance Killeen’s traffic cameras will be making a return.
It’s up to the city and its drivers to adjust accordingly — and to do so safely.