Oct 242016
 
Owen Courrèges

Owen Courrèges

Mayor Landrieu’s 2017 budget has been released, and true to form, Landrieu proposes to nickel and dime the citizens of New Orleans for scraps of revenue. In order to generate an additional $5 million, Landrieu plans to double the number of red light and speed cameras, adding a whopping 56 cameras around the city.

Not all of them will be fixed in place, either. Landrieu is also proposing to add ten mobile cameras to the city’s automated enforcement arsenal.

To justify this massive expansion of Big Brother, Landrieu presents the cameras as a universal good that only offend scofflaws. “If you don’t run a red light, you won’t get a ticket,” Landrieu told reporters earlier this week. “If you don’t speed in a school zone, you won’t get a ticket.”

Well, that’s a complete and utter lie. The public record is rife with cases of clear error with respect to the so-called “safety” cameras.

For example, in 2012, I wrote two columns regarding the school zone speed camera that was installed on Freret at the former site of Audubon Primary. The first related to a reader who wrote in to me to note that she was ticketed outside of school zone hours. This was plain on the face of the citation. Clearly, the city is not properly vetting tickets or the cameras.

In my second column, I addressed a more pressing fact – that there isn’t a valid school on Freret because Audubon primary isn’t there anymore. You can’t have a valid school zone without a school, and that school zone was established for a school moved before the cameras were installed. That’s heaping illegality on top of illegality.

Since I wrote those columns, it does not appear that the situation has improved greatly. There have been various reports over the past few years of improperly issued tickets, usually due to clerical mistakes that simply shouldn’t slip through.

However, Landrieu and his ilk essentially present the cameras as a type of “sin tax,” only punishing bad behavior, such that upright, virtuous citizens have nothing to fear. I’ve personally heard this argument before, and it’s particularly grating.

Innocent people are ticketed, and what’s worse, the remedies for those wrongfully accused are lax at best. The first means by which a camera ticket may be challenged is in the Administrative Hearing Center, the same kangaroo court that adjudicates parking tickets. After waiting perhaps several hours, your challenge will be heard by a peculiar species of contract attorney (a hearing officer) who serves as both prosecutor and judge.

Needless to say, the system is rigged and provides the barest semblance of due process. Unless you have virtually incontrovertible evidence, the citation will generally be upheld.

Considering the inadequate review of camera citations at all levels, citizens certainly may get tickets regardless of whether they “run a red light” or “speed in a school zone.” After all, if Landrieu had wanted the system to be foolproof, it would have been a simple matter to provide ironclad procedural protections from the outset. However, procedural protections cost money. Paying for due process renders safety cameras less of a cash cow.

In any event, by presenting camera tickets as a species of tax, proponents essentially acknowledge that their primary aim is to generate revenue. Yet even on that score, New Orleanians are getting a raw deal.

With a traditional tax, money is extracted by citizens and businesses and then used for public services. We can debate the utility of government versus money in the pocket of citizens, but both inarguably benefit the local economy in some fashion. Government hires people and provides services, while citizens spend money and fuel private enterprise.

On the flipside, a person who gets a camera ticket may reconsider a planned dinner excursion and instead eat beanie weenies at home to keep his budget in order. Local officials may forgo filling potholes when somebody else is taking a cut.

With the “camera tax,” a chunk of the money extracted from the citizen goes out of state. In this case, it journeys all the way to Arizona, the home of American Traffic Solutions (ATS), the private corporation hired to manage the automated traffic enforcement program. In 2008, the Times-Picayine reported that ATS would receive “$30 a ticket for the first 150 tickets a month from a camera and a smaller fee as the number of tickets mounts.”

In March of this year, WDSU News reported that “[t]he city has issued 1,467,247 citations since the traffic safety camera program started in 2008.” At $30 per ticket, that would have netted ATS in excess of over $44 million. Given that there’s a sliding scale here, though, let’s be generous and say that the number is half that, or $22 million. That’s still a lot of money.

Thus, it’s clear that tens of millions of dollars have left the City of New Orleans for drier pastures in Arizona. Money that may otherwise have gone either to the city or to local enterprise is simply siphoned out.

This is not the way a “sin tax” normally works. We’re taking a substantial amount of cash out of the local economy and sending it away. ATS surely spends its money on operations, but most of those operations aren’t here and don’t benefit the city. Can that really be best for New Orleans?

If the cameras at least improved traffic safety and thus spared the NOPD the burden of traffic enforcement, that would at least be something. Alas, even that claim is suspect. Studies are mixed on whether traffic cameras reduce the impact of accidents. While T-bone collisions are mitigated, rear-end collisions tend to skyrocket. Arguably, the cameras are mixed bag safety-wise.

Nevertheless, when revenue is the only concern, schemes like traffic cameras become an attractive option to cash-hungry politicians. I simply propose that we not forget what this is, and appropriately regard this budget as an ongoing travesty.

Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.

  13 Responses to “Owen Courreges: Did anyone in New Orleans really want more traffic cameras?”

  1. I concur. If public safety was the motivation, the plan would have started with, “Here are the most dangerous streets and intersections in the city due to automotive accidents resulting in death or injury.” Instead the plan started with, “Here is how much money we need to generate.” It’s the wrong approach and a poor use of governmental power.

  2. I disagree. Does anyone need to run a red light? Ever? It’s dangerous. You want to run a red light. Pay for the ticket if there’s a camera there. You think law-abiding drivers will feel sorry for those getting tickets? Think again.

    • It’s clear you didn’t even ready Owen’s article. It’s not about safety at all. If it was, then just adding one sec to the yellow light duration has been shown in studies to reduce accidents by 92% and can be easily applied at the most dangerous intersections. But that doesn’t make money. Law abiding citizens DO feel bad, as many (such as service industry people) can’t afford to take the countless unpaid hours off of work to fight a questionably unconstitutional system when they get one in error, which happens to thousands every year. I’ve fought three myself, and all were dismissed, but that was three days off of work I had to take.

    • Dusk,

      Actually, sometimes it is better to run a red light. If you’re being tailgated and a light turns yellow where traffic is backed up in both directions on the intersecting street, it’s less risky to proceed through the intersection than slam on your brakes and almost guarantee a rear-end collision. This is why red light cameras tend to cause a massive increase in rear-end collisions; the evidence shows that motorists normally don’t brake hard when they encounter a yellow light, and that’s actually a good thing.

      What’s even worse, however, is that the city is setting yellow light times too low for the sake of generating revenue. Check it out — when the city first introduced the cameras, they were exclusively at intersections with yellow light times of 4 seconds or more. When the city introduced more cameras, however, the yellow light times were around 3 seconds at many of the new intersections with cameras. Clearly, this is not about either safety or catching scofflaws — it’s about generating revenue.

      I feel sorry for anybody caught in this scheme, and so should you. Look closer at the facts.

      • Well, we should bring up the shorter yellow light issue and get that fixed. And whenever I have someone tailgating me, I slow down until we’re both going really slowly or they pass me. But, I agree with another responder who wrote: “But I want people to quit driving like insane chimpanzes with a meth addiction and a death wish.” Crossing streets like Canal (outside of downtown) or Claiborne (Uptown) one cannot help but notice (and they better pause before crossing one of these streets) the people who regularly are speeding and don’t for a minute consider not running a red light. So, I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree. I just think that there are way too many people in New Orleans and maybe the rest of Louisiana who have no interest in obeying any driving/traffic laws. I’m amazed at the number of people who don’t have a driver’s license, insurance and/or a valid registration when accidents occur and it’s disclosed that this is the case. Keep up the good work, sir.

      • One quick follow up–truck parked on Arabella St. close to our house–booted. For . . . . not paying $521 in tickets for running red lights with cameras. To remove boot, of course owner must pay that bill plus $131 for boot enforcement! Just FYI.

  3. Well Owen, you and I have chatted a bit about this already, and I conceed that traffic cameras are a money grab and unfair and a regressive tax and many other things. But I want people to quit driving like insane chimpanzes with a meth addiction and a death wish. The city is making extremely gradual progress forward with curb bumpouts and structural features that have proven to have the effect of “traffic calming”. In the meantime we have United Cabs using General Pershing Street and Marengo as their personal Napoleon Avenue Interstate bypass ramp, and Tulane kids in Jeeps regularly hitting 50 on the newly paved section of Napoleon near the hospital. Claiborne….well good grief. God help you if you are a pedestrian attempting to cross anywhere between Napoleon and Toledano. So how exactly can we limit these people’s ability to travel at life ending speeds in their metal boxes? The threat of financial pain seems like the best thing we’ve got going.

  4. I feel like I am almost willing to go to jail to resist these traffic cameras, and for all the reasons already offered, and for one more: this is the camel’s nose in the tent of autonomous computer systems controlling our lives — and this is a subject I know something about: http://artent.net/2015/03/27/art-and-artificial-intelligence-by-g-w-smith/ . And let me share this point: these traffic cameras are not tied in to the traffic light control boxes: they themselves watch the lights changing in order to catch “violators” — but without any of the additional information that sometimes requires us to run a yellow light, or to make a right turn before we’ve had a chance to come to a full stop as long as we might like. And let me share another point: these traffic cams are installed by for-profit companies, who take a share of the fines — and I suspect they are offered to cities with little up-front cost, so lucrative is the business. And one final point: these traffic cams are “extra-judicial” in terms of our normal legal system.

  5. All you have to do is slow down for the sensors on the road which are clearly visible, then speed up again. There are no NOPD enforcing traffic laws. Since City Hall turned over traffic enforcement to machines, people have realized they can drive crazy without repercussion as long as you slow down for the little lines in the street. These cameras won’t encourage people to drive better, they are allowing us to drive worse like Mad Max on meth.

  6. A few years ago Car & Driver magazine did an investigative piece on how the time the yellow light was on being reduced after these private companies installed these systems.

  7. Totally agree. This is a joke to pretend this is for public safety. Why don’t they work a bit harder to foster real revenue in a city instead of making it even more of a pitiful place to live. The camera on Henry Clay is a prime example. I personally know multiple people from out of town who have had sick kids recovering at Childrens Hospital who have gotten 3 or 4 consecutive tickets just going Back and forth to the hospital not realizing that there is a RIDICULOUSLY low speed limit on a wide open major road with only a brick wall running down one side (meaning there is practically no pedestrian or crossing traffic ). They are well over a hundred dollars each and they nearly bankrupted some pretty poor families that couldn’t afford it. Shame on you Mitch, shame on this city, shame on the lie that this is to promote public safety. It’s done entirely to generate $millions. Weak argument that it is only for people who scoff the law. These people innocently missed the nearly hidden speed signs and and had no ideas they were racking up ticket after ticket each day until they got the tickets in the mail a few weeks later. If there was a cop there ticketing they would have at least learned their lesson the first time.
    So hopefully Mitch can pat himself on the back when it comes time to leave office knowing that his only accomplishments as mayor will be to have taken down a bunch of statues and generated millions of dollars by fining citizens and visitors who inadvertently travel 5 – 7 miles over the speed limit. What a legacy. Pitiful.

  8. In Jefferson Parish, there was vocal opposition to the cameras, and government took heed. The cameras are gone, and driving is safe again. Orleans Parish Democrats really do not seem to mind since big government is the master plan. These cameras make it incredibly dangerous to drive around New Orleans though. In the beginning, it was easy enough to memorize the locations of the cameras, but now they are everywhere. I spent $100 on a traffic camera detector and have never gotten a camera ticket, but it is incredibly unsafe driving around streets like Carrollton or Poydras. Doubling the number of cameras and including mobile cameras would be a European socialist level of oppression. I wonder how mobile cameras are compatible with warning sign requirements as well. I would probably spend all my money in other parishes instead of just most of my dollars, if driving is going to become this perilous. The state legislature needs to ban Democrats from terrorizing citizens with cameras.

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