Red-Light Cam Nabs Driver Yielding to Ambulance

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    NEWSLETTERS

    A pastor yields the right of way to an ambulance and is ticketed by a red light camera. (Published Thursday, Nov 25, 2010)

    Before you get into this story, you'll need to watch the video above. Go ahead, I'll wait for you.

    It's video from one of those red-light cameras in Fort Worth. On it, you see Stu Cocanougher's '73 orange VW "Thing" pull up to the red light on Oct. 11 and slow down.

    "You can see I have the brakes on, ready to stop," Cocanougher, an associate pastor at Southcliff Baptist Church in Fort Worth, said during a telephone interview Tuesday.

    "All of a sudden, I hear the sirens and see the lights flashing behind me," Cocanougher said.

    An ambulance was quickly approaching behind him.

    "I'm almost stopped, and I'm thinking, 'What do I do? What do I do?'" Cocanougher said.

    "I didn't want to stay stopped," he said. "There could be someone dying in there."

    "Plus, he wasn't slowing down much. He didn't look like he was stopping."

    So Cocanougher did what most any good citizen would do -- he sped up and turned right at the red light to let the emergency vehicle through.

    He doesn't remember if he noticed a flash, but he said that even if he did, he assumed the person reviewing the videos and images on the red-light cameras would realize he was merely performing his obligation by law to get out of the way of an emergency vehicle.

    Cocanougher went about his busy life at Southcliff Baptist in Fort Worth heading up the church's "Share" group -- a ministry that serves its community by doing mission trips, and the like.

    Then, two weeks later...

    "I get a ticket in the mail and think, 'What's this?' Cocanougher said. "I thought, 'This is ludicrous.'"

    Cocanougher called the city of Fort Worth's third-party red-light camera vendor, American Traffic Solutions, in Arizona... or was it Ohio? It was one of the two.

    He's clear of one thing: "I wasn't talking to anyone in Fort Worth."

    American Traffic Solutions, or ATS, reviewed the video and told him he didn't come to a complete stop at the red light.

    "Yeah, but that's because there was an ambulance with its [emergency] lights on," he told them.

    ATS then told Cocanougher it would submit it for further review to see if it could be dismissed or not.

    One week went by, and Cocanougher called ATS to check up on his situation. It was still being reviewed, he was told.

    Another week went by. Now we're getting close to the Nov. 10 due date that Cocanougher has to either file a formal appeal or pay the ticket. Still under review.

    "I was getting nervous, because the contest date was approaching," Cocanougher said.

    The day before the deadline, he got a voice mail on his cell phone from ATS. I heard it.

    "I reviewed the information," the voice on the line said. "The city is stating you have to submit your request for a hearing no later than the 10th of November."

    Cocanougher said he thought briefly whether he should just pay the $75 and move on with his life, or waste a day in court so a judge could inevitably tell him he was right and the city (or the red-light camera) was wrong.

    "I have a busy life," Cocanougher said.

    He ended up faxing the information to formally contest the ticket through the city. It has been two weeks, and he said he hasn't heard a thing.

    So who checks this video before its sent out? Under the law, a Texas-certified peace officer has to actually review the videos and/or photos taken by a red-light camera before a ticket can be mailed out.

    Bill Begley, a city of Fort Worth spokesman, called the person in charge of reviewing possible red-light camera violations. Begley said that guy had already very recently looked at the video and immediately realized Cocanougher was doing the right thing by letting the ambulance through. The ticket was dismissed -- just like that.

    But why wasn't it dismissed weeks sooner?

    The Process

    Every time someone crosses the line at a red-light camera after the light turns red, the camera takes a picture and a video clip.

    That file is then sent to ATS. ATS then goes through each of the files and makes sure the camera didn't malfunction. It doesn't decide if an offense occurred, Begley said. It just looks at the mechanics of the situation.

    Then it sends the legit files to Fort Worth, where a group of 13 officers in October looked through 15,113 potential red-light runners, Begley said.

    Simple math tells you each person reviewed an average of 1,162 videos.

    Of the 15,113 videos, they each rejected an average of 36 of those. That means 467 people did not actually run the red light, and a citation wasn't issued.

    Cocanougher wasn't one of those... until now.

    Begley said, depending on the work flow of the red-light reviewers, they will look at the images that are on appeal if they have time and, upon further review, dismiss them if there are any outstanding circumstances (such as ambulances coming up behind you.)

    City Vehicles Run Red Lights, Too

    Pastors and normal people like you and I aren't the only ones who are caught running red lights. I reviewed a random six-month sample of red-light cam violations under the Texas Public Information Act and found at least 79 city vehicles that were caught by red-light cameras running red lights.

    It's hard to tell how many of those were responding to emergency calls and how many just outright ran the red light. The city wouldn't let me see the video, only the citations.

    Most of those citations, by the way, didn't have to be paid.

    And that's just a snapshot. Fort Worth only has red-light cameras in only 45 intersections. There are hundreds more, so there's no telling how many more city employees break the law away from the forever watchful eyes of the red-light cameras.

    With all this talk of tickets being issued incorrectly and recent news of voters in Houston casting down red-light cameras, it shouldn't be overlooked that running red lights can be dangerous to you and others. Just take a look at this video posted on the city of Fort Worth's website. Ouch.

    Accident - McCart and Westcreek from Red Light Camera Program on Vimeo.