The infamous stop sign camera scam

Since 2007 July, the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Agency (MRCA) in the Los Angeles, CA, area has been using photographic (camera) enforcement on many stop signs in the parks it manages. The fine was at first $100, then increased later to $175 (and possibly the fines can go higher for multiple violations within a year). A small sampling of posts about this scam:

There is no shortage of news coverage and blog posts about what is a very obvious scheme of arbitrary traffic rules enforced strictly for revenue.

It’s a scam because a lot of stop signs are placed in confusing locations, and worse, in some locations if a vehicle stops behind the sign, it is actually more dangerous than if the stop is made later or the stop sign is simply a yield sign (or an even a unsigned yield based on rules of the road). The third post above about the Topanga Overlook shows one such ill-placed stop sign (from a safety standpoint):

Exiting traffic from the parking lot has plenty of room to yield to thru traffic on the road or merge at a safe speed. Placing the stop sign there simply forces drivers to make the merge from a dead stop, and does absolutely nothing to improve safety.

This is just one example. At least one other MRCA photo enforced stop sign is at a “crosswalk to nowhere.” The crosswalk leads to a sidewalk on one side, but just dirt on the other and no obvious way for pedestrians to continue on any type of path. Again, with this in mind it’s easy to conclude this is a “gotcha” stop sign just for revenue. Putting up stop signs like this reduces the overall respect for traffic control devices everywhere and reduces safety across the board long term.

One comment on the blog posts notes that in travelling over 1000 miles across the UK, he saw maybe one or two stop signs on the whole trip, reserved for situations where it’s just impossible to clearly see the traffic until right at the corner. The rest are “give way” signs (which we label “yield” in the US). Honestly, the Brits are on to something here when it comes to traffic engineering. (However, their use of speed cameras over there completely misses the mark, but that’s another topic for another day.)

While I am overall no fan of unsafe driving, I oppose any type of automated photographic or videographic enforcement methods. The reason behind this is that I have found these methods are almost always, sooner or later, abused for revenue. This abuse leads to less respect for traffic control devices and traffic laws overall, leading to more dangerous, not safer, roads.

This abuse is part of the reason the red light cameras here in Houston, TX, and not too far away in Baytown, TX, are no longer standing. The people here figured it out. It doesn’t matter if the money is treated the same as other traffic ticket fines or if it goes to public hospital trauma centers; the abuse still happens. The MRCA’s silly stop signs just make it more obvious it’s about revenue, not safety. Shame on you, MRCA.

Red light camera tickets and bully tactics

A recent KTRK-TV news story investigates the Houston Police Department’s red light camera program and the delinquency letters which recently went out to scofflaws who have not paid the fine. These letters threaten a hold on the vehicle’s registration if the fine is not paid, and that is where the issue lies.

Quoting from the Web version of the story:

“That’s just a false statement,” said Harris County Judge Ed Emmett.

Harris County commissioners have refused to let the city use its tax assessor collector’s office to withhold registration renewals for delinquent red light violators. There was a unanimous vote a few months ago. Commissioners said it was based on issues, some said it was politics. HPD’s chief financial officer doesn’t understand.

Now, I’d like to make it clear I support the obedience of most traffic laws, and that specifically includes properly timed and warranted traffic signals. On the whole, disregarding (running) a red light is dangerous, both for the violator and the cross traffic at risk of a collision. Don’t do it. (Some of you may already wonder why I say “most” and not “all” and I’ll address those in a later post.)

That said, I have a huge issue with red light cameras. It would appear to me that HPD is trying to send a message to the people who whiz through at the last tenth of a second, sometimes at 10 MPH or more over the speed limit, trying to beat the change to red. However, I have observed some intersections with a camera and noticed the vast majority of presumed violators are those poking through at the tail end of a large group of vehicles–hardly the real danger to safety when one hears or reads “red light runner.” Unless you have someone who bolts out at the first sight of a green light–not a wise idea in Houston or any other large city–these drivers rarely pose a real risk to safety and are more of an annoyance. (The case could be made the driver who gives a traffic signal the race track treatment is the bigger risk to safety.)

Someone I know got a ticket for failing to come to a complete stop before a right turn on red. Originally, these types of violations were not going to be ticketed. Apparently, someone saw the dollar signs and said “Who cares if the city doesn’t get the money and it all goes to hospitals? Let’s max it out anyway.”

We already know HPD is willing to lie and usurp the FAA’s authority over airspace when it suits their best interests. It is not surprising to me at all that HPD is also willing to bully red light camera ticket recipients with an outright lie about vehicle registration.

Local traffic ticket attorney Scott Markowitz decries the misleading warning as “at best a hollow threat, at worst is fraud.” And I’m inclined to agree. Until HPD realizes red light cameras rarely if ever catch the real risks to safety and on the whole don’t work, the best we can hope for is at least some semblance of truth in the delinquency letters.