Owen Courrèges: The lucrative sound of traffic safety

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Owen Courrèges

They’re the scourge of New Orleans’ streets.  They strike with little warning and virtually no oversight, costing the citizens of New Orleans tens of millions of dollars each year.  As the years have passed they have continued to expand their reach into new neighborhoods – virgin territory for these merciless mechanical marvels.

I am speaking, of course, of speed cameras.

Thankfully, in this legislative session there are two bills from local legislators, Senate Bill 75 and House Bill 347, seeking to ban speed cameras statewide.  In our charged political climate, it is heartening that this effort is a bipartisan one.  The House bill is sponsored by Rep. Jeffery Arnold (D – New Orleans), while the Senate bill is sponsored by Sen. Daniel Martiny (R – Metairie).

Of course, this had been tried before.  Cedric Richmond, former State Representative (and current U.S. Representative), made a noted attempt to ban red light cameras in 2009.  At the time, Richmond accurately noted that the cameras are “just a revenue generator.”

However, this doesn’t mollify supporters of the so-called “safety” cameras. Any discussion of automated traffic enforcement always begins with this statement:  If you don’t violate traffic laws then you have nothing to worry about. This is the go-to statement of traffic camera proponents.  They present the cameras as a win-win scenario where the city garners additional revenue by extracting money from an unsympathetic group – traffic scofflaws.

There are multiple problems with this stance.  First of all, under New Orleans’ existing automated traffic enforcement statute, the owner of a vehicle is solidarily liable with the driver for any camera fine.  What this means is that if you generously loan your car to your broke, unemployed friend who is late for a job interview, you’ll be on the hook for his ticket when he blares past a speed camera on his way to meet with the Assistant Manager of Taco Hut.

Of course, you could still be stuck with a bill even in the absence of speed cameras.  If your friend double-parked next to Taco Hut, you’d still probably be stuck paying a parking ticket.  However, with a parking ticket, catching a non-blameworthy party is an unfortunate necessity.  With moving violations, the identity of the offender is no mystery.  You can actually catch the person in the act.  Heck, even with a traffic camera you can take a photo of the windshield and get a decent image of the driver, which many jurisdictions with speed cameras do.  The sad reality is that the City was just too cheap to pay for that.

Secondly, as I noted in an earlier column, the procedure for challenging speed camera tickets is through the Administrative Hearing Center (AHC).  The AHC is, to put it mildly, a kangaroo court.  Accordingly, there is no realistic means of challenging speed camera tickets even when you’re innocent.

Recently, I ventured to the AHC to defend a speed camera ticket issued from a particularly notorious speed camera on Henry Clay Avenue (where the speed limit is inexplicably 25 mph rather than the customary 35 mph).  Right off the bat, I asked the Hearing Officer to introduce some admissible evidence regarding the accuracy and calibration of the speed camera.  This is pretty standard evidence. However, the Hearing Officer refused to admit, well, anything.  He noted that a computerized test had been run, but openly admitted that he didn’t know what, if anything, the test actually tested.

Dumbstruck, I noted that there was no evidence to sustain the violation and thus he should reject the ticket.   The Hearing Officer then told me that I would have to institute a civil appeal.

When I pressed further, noting that he was legally required to require the City to submit evidence to prove responsibility, the Hearing Officer said – and I am not joking – that he could literally eyeball the speed of a vehicle based on a video clip taken by the camera.  The Louisiana Supreme Court has held that even trained traffic cops don’t have that ability (unless, presumably, they have super-powers).

Thirdly, Rep. Richmond was right – speed cameras are just a revenue generator.  Although proponents of speed cameras insist otherwise, the cameras aren’t about safety.  Speeding isn’t exactly a good idea, but it’s seldom the cause of accidents.  A U.S. Department of Transportation study reviewing causes of traffic collisions between 2005 and 2007 revealed that speeding was the cause of less than 3% of accidents.  Accordingly, on a linear spectrum of “the government needs to enforce this law vigorously” to “who the hell cares,” speeding doesn’t exactly rank very high.

The bottom line is that speed cameras may generate loads of revenue, but they don’t improve safety much.

The same is true of red light cameras.  While red light cameras reduce dangerous “t-bone” collisions, they also tend to increase rear-end collisions because people who are being tailgated tend to slam on their brakes anyway upon seeing a yellow light to avoid feeling the rote, unfeeling wrath of the camera.  It’s a not a good trade-off, but hey – people make it.  In some intersections, it has even been shown that the addition of a red light camera actually increased the number of accidents.  Overall, studies are very mixed.

Finally, on a closely-related point, the status of safety cameras as a cash cow has also generated a byproduct that Louisianans are very familiar with – political corruption.

Last year, it Jefferson Parish’s automated traffic enforcement program was halted when it was uncovered that Redflex, the private contractor hired to implement the program, planned to kick back 3.2 percent of the fines it collects to Bryan Wagner, a former New Orleans City Councilman who lobbied on its behalf.

And just this past week, it came to light that police officers with ties to Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas were receiving payments to review camera tickets from – wait for it – a company owned by a close family friend of Serpas!  Who knew the sound of traffic safety was “ca-ching?”

This is why speed cameras are really a menace.   They don’t necessarily target the guilty, they offer virtually no procedural protections for the innocent, they don’t significantly improve safety, and they encourage political corruption.  Speed cameras are screaming a proverbial “BINGO” for bad public policy.  God willing, they’ll be banned in this legislative session.

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.

6 thoughts on “Owen Courrèges: The lucrative sound of traffic safety

  1. I totally disagree here. If you are a local, you know how idiotic the drivers are in Orleans Parish….dangerous, no regard for red lights, no regard for speed limits. Since these cameras have been implemented I have noticed a vast improvement in driving habits of our citizens. Safer streets, more revenue, less need to raise property taxes, only speeders pay this tax….I love it! Don’t speed, don’t pay.

  2. Correction: The speed limit along Henry Clay is 25 MPH just like every other undivided two-way street in the City. Nothing about Henry Clay Ave. suggests the speed limit ought to be raised there, especially with its residential nature (lots of kids) and somewhat limited visibility (turning vehicles, driveways) toward the St. Charles end. Moreover, when you consider the severity of a potential head-on collision at a (combined) speed of 50 MPH, does raising the limit to 35 MPH (combined speed, 70!) make any real sense? I don’t think so.

    • Tim G.,

      Actually, we’re both wrong. I mistook Henry Clay for a Boulevard, which is normally set a 35 mph. However, for two-way streets like Henry Clay, the presumptive speed limit is 30 mph, not 25 mph. For some reason they listed each direction of Henry Clay as a one-way street, even though it is really just a single two-way street. It’s also particularly wide and perfectly straight.

      The bottom line is that they decided to give Henry Clay a lower speed limit than it would normally have under the municipal code. I understand that it’s a residential street, but given its general characteristics I think that 30 or 35 mph would have been more appropriate.

  3. I have to agree with you. We were asked in our neighborhood about safety measures to institute on one of our infamous raceways: a long street with only 2 stop signs in place, with blocks and blocks of unchecked speed going on. There is a playground on the raceway. The question: if we were offered a speed camera and a stop sign, where would we want each of them? Our feeling was that a STOP sign just before the playground would be a preventative measure, ie, proactive, to prevent someone from hitting a child going to or from the park, and to place a speed camera (reactive, since you get the ticket AFTER you’ve gone too fast) where the speeders had less chance of hitting a child.
    The result: speed camera near the park, with no notice to residents, and we continue to await the promised stop sign.

  4. Great points about why red cameras arent nescessary. The one I cant stand is located on the corner of St Charles and Melpomene/Martin Luther King. It gave me a ticket for taking a right turn on a red. Said I didnt come to a complete stop. NO way to prove I did or didnt and an actual cop would have never given a ticket in this case. I actually try to avoid that red light now. So there could be a case made that property owners in these intersections suffer as well.

  5. I just received a notice in the mail of speeding on Jackson Ave Supposedly, I was doing 31 in a 25 mph zone. The ticket is dated 3/28/11 and it just came in the mail today, 5/11/11. Chances are, I may get some more for that same location, since I wasn’t aware that there was a camera there. Jackson Ave is divided by a median. Though there are speed limit signs, and ignorance of the law is no excuse, so they say, it is easy to assume the speed limit is 30mph, since there is a median. This whole system sucks!

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