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7/4/2009
Texas City Caught Trapping Drivers with Short Yellows
Baytown, Texas discloses bank accounts of red light camera ticket recipients, admits using short yellows.

Baytown ticketA Texas motorist caught the city of Baytown using short yellows to trap motorists at a photo enforced intersection and of failing to protect sensitive private information. At a press conference yesterday, Byron Schirmbeck and his attorney,* Randall Kallinen, announced that the city had agreed to drop a $75 ticket issued on April 12 for making a right-hand turn just 0.2 seconds after the light had turned red at the intersection of West Baker and Garth Roads. The yellow time at this intersection was set at just 3.1 seconds, even though state guidelines indicate that the yellow should have lasted no less than 4 seconds.

"I informed my councilman and he set up an interview with the police legal advisor and head of the red light camera program," Schirmbeck told TheNewspaper. "They reluctantly admitted the amber times were too low but don't admit any wrongdoing or have any explanation."

Police reviewed the situation and ordered the yellow time at the intersection raised to 4.5 seconds on June 5. At least five other pending tickets will be dismissed, but Schirmbeck believes hundreds of other motorists may have been trapped by the same short yellow and deserve full refunds.

A small change in the length of the yellow warning period can make a significant difference. The vast majority of "violations" caught on camera happen after drivers misjudge the end of the yellow light by less than 0.25 seconds -- literally the blink of an eye (view chart). According to a report by the California State Auditor, nearly 80 percent of that state's tickets were issued for violations that took place less than one second into the red. By adding an extra 1.4 seconds to the yellow, violations should plunge at the intersection of Baker and Garth by more than 80 percent.

The shortened yellow helped boost violations, allowing American Traffic Solutions (ATS) to issue $222,587 worth of tickets in the month of April alone. Of this amount, ATS took a 55 percent cut, even though Texas law specifically bans per-ticket contract arrangements. Baytown cited a grandfather loophole clause in the law as the reason it has continued the practice.

Baytown has also failed to implement any privacy protections for the sensitive personal information accessed and stored by its vendor, ATS. Schirmbeck showed TheNewspaper documents provided by the city that contained unredacted personal information on every motorist cited by the red light camera program since May 2008. This information included the full bank account and routing numbers of anyone who paid by check.

"That's a huge problem, in my opinion," Schirmbeck said.

* Correction: Randall Kallinen is not Byron Schirmbeck's attorney.




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