Last week, I chronicled the exploits of New Orleans’ newest weapon against the scourge of speeding – roving speed camera vehicles. You’ll recall that one of these vehicles was caught doing something rather naughty; namely, it was seen parked across the sidewalk on Lakeshore Drive.
I fully expected that the city would do what it normally does when it gets caught with its pants down: either ignore the incident entirely or (alternatively) issue a statement expressing regret and vowing corrective action to ensure that it wouldn’t happen again.
Instead, the city chose Option “C.” It dug in its heels and defended the indefensible.
To wit, Erin Burns, Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s press secretary, issued the following statement:
“The purpose of the City of New Orleans Traffic Safety program is to deter red light violations, reduce speeding violations, increase traffic situational awareness and reduce collision severity. While operating in an official capacity, City of New Orleans public safety vehicles may park at any location or right-of-away within the City to deter illegal driving behavior. This vehicle was operating in a public safety capacity.”
The foregoing should be read slowly, preferably following a shot of whiskey. It may take a moment for the full implications to settle in. The city is saying that privately owned vehicles – vehicles designed for automated enforcement of speed limits – are essentially the same as fire trucks, ambulances, and police vehicles responding to emergency calls.
What temerity Mayor Landrieu must have to claim this – what sheer, unmitigated gall. He’s placing private speed cameras in the same position as first responders.
The reasoning being used is plainly specious. First of all, vehicles owned by American Traffic Solutions (ATS) and deployed for the purpose of issuing speeding tickets are not “public safety vehicles.” They are not akin to police cars and other emergency vehicles.
Secondly, while emergency vehicles necessarily have dispensation vis-à-vis parking laws when actually responding to emergencies, they are not simply exempt from traffic laws. The police are generally supposed to park legally; they are not supposed to commit crimes in the name of enforcing the law. So to recap the rule for public vehicles parking illegally – exigent circumstances: yes, routine circumstances: no.
Truthfully, the police tend to skirt parking laws. I’ve seen countless officers and deputies who shamelessly place “OFFICER ON DUTY” signs on the dashboard of their personal vehicles, as though they can park anywhere they please. I’ve also seem officers parked illegally to write tickets, often creating a far greater hazard. However, we normally understand that these officers are merely taking advantage. The rule of law still applies.
There’s good reason to limit parking dispensation to actual emergencies. Many parking restrictions have a safety component. The law against parking over the entire sidewalk is one of these. It forces people to walk into the street, including vulnerable persons like children and the handicapped.
The city touts dubious safety gains from speed cameras as a justification for blocking the sidewalk, but forcing countless pedestrians to divert into the street sounds a little more dangerous than a few people speeding on Lakeshore Drive.
Moreover, the city isn’t even issuing actual tickets. It announced last week that anybody caught by the mobile cameras between Jan. 9 and Feb. 9 will just receive a warning and not a ticket.
Thus, the ATS car was kicking people out into the street for… nothing.
The real question now, though, is just how far the city and ATS are going to take this. After all, according to them, speed camera vehicles have carte blanche. They can park literally anywhere. Heck, you might wake up tomorrow to see an ATS vehicle in your driveway. If you call the parking division, I’m sure Ms. Burns would be kind enough to spew not-so-comforting drivel about how “public safety vehicles may park at any location within the city.”
What is certain is that there is no argument so ridiculous that the city will not employ it in defense of traffic cameras. All other concerns are secondary to keeping those cameras flashing, including basic safety. If that doesn’t tell you where Mayor Landrieu’s priorities lie, I don’t know what will.
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.