Houston became the latest U.S. city to turn off its red-light traffic cameras on Wednesday, less than a month after Los Angeles did the same, in a move that camera opponents said reflects a gradual nationwide trend to abandon the devices.
But supporters of such programs, including state highway officials and Houston's own mayor, quickly defended the cameras, claiming they save lives, improve safety and have widespread support, noting that more than 500 municipalities _ including New York, Washington and other large cities _ still use them.
More than a dozen cities now ban the cameras, as do nine states. In many areas where the cameras have been turned off, opponents argued that the programs simply generated revenue without improving safety. Others said they were a money drain _ Los Angeles' city council canceled its program because it was losing money _ while some argue the cameras were an unlawful invasion of privacy.
Houston residents voted nine months ago to banish the cameras, which photograph vehicles as they run through a red light and send the owner a ticket. After months of legal wrangling, including a federal judge throwing out the election results, the Houston City Council voted Wednesday to end its program _ even though canceling the contract could cost the city as much as $25 million.
Houston Mayor Annise Parker and several council members expressed support for the cameras, believing they help save lives, but indicated they wanted to honor "the will of the people."
"For those who may be celebrating the fact the red light cameras are turned off, it is illegal to run a red light. I will do everything I can to have police out enforcing this law," Parker said after the vote.
Michael Kubosh, who helped organize the referendum to remove red cameras, said the cameras were only put up to generate revenue for the city.
Houston officials are hoping to reach a reasonable settlement with American Traffic Solutions Inc., which operated the programs in Houston and Los Angles, but is prepared to go to court if needed.
Company spokesman Charles Territo said American Traffic Solutions still has 300 towns and cities as customers, including New York, Washington, New Orleans, Kansas City and 80 communities in Florida. And the Scottsdale, Ariz.,-based company expects to set another record in 2011 for new camera installations.
"The issues in Houston and Los Angeles had nothing to do with the effectiveness of the cameras," Territo said. "It had everything to do with the politics of the cameras."
The fight in Houston seems indicative of the divergent support that such programs have received around the country in recent years.
In July 2010 in South Dakota, Sioux Falls shut down its red-light cameras and suspended payments to the contractor that operates them. The city cited a pending lawsuit by a resident who claims the camera violates due-process rights because it doesn't capture images of those who actually are behind the wheel.
In 2007, the Minnesota Supreme Court struck down Minneapolis' red light camera program.
Gary Biller, executive director of the National Motorists Association, said he's encouraged by such decisions. He acknowledged that in the last three years, the number of U.S. cities that have started using red-light cameras has gone up from about 150 to more than 500, "but we're seeing a reversal in that trend," he said.
"It's going to be gradual though. I think it's going to be a long battle," said Biller, whose Wisconsin-based group supports motorists' freedoms and rights. "We're seeing cities like Houston, Los Angeles, very prominent examples of cities voting down cameras."
However, Jonathan Adkins, with the Governors Highway Safety Administration, noted a June study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety that surveyed drivers in 14 large cities with longstanding red-light camera programs, including Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix. It found that two-thirds of those drivers support their use.
Adkins, whose group represents state and territorial highway safety offices, said he believes "most people are supportive of (the cameras) and want them there."
Associated Press writer Jacques Billeaud in Phoenix contributed to this report.