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New Orleans Expands Its Traffic Camera Operations

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The Times-Picayune reported last week that the city of New Orleans is making several important changes to its traffic camera program. Several months ago on this blog we ran a discussion forum on this topic to see how people felt about traffic cameras, and responders were overwhelmingly against them.

The city is facing scrutiny from a fed-up public, but it's not exactly making changes that will be met with delight. Here are some of the important items in the report:

The city will be installing 11 new traffic cameras. These cameras will mostly be concentrated in and around school zones, where the majority of citations are issued.

A motorist will now have to be going more than 10 miles per hour above the speed limit to be cited by a camera. The exception will be during school hours, during which a driver can be ticketed for going one mile per hour over the speed limit.

One-third of the people who receive traffic camera tickets don't pay the fine. The city's recourse has in the past been to 'boot' the cars of delinquent drivers. Now, however, people with fines exceeding $500 can be sued by the city.

The traffic cameras have been heavily criticized because their tickets are so difficult to contest. Traffic camera tickets are treated as civil and not criminal matters. This is important because it costs $476 to file a motion for appeal in civil court, whereas a 'traditional' traffic ticket is free to appeal in Traffic Court. The traffic cameras also operate under the assumption that they are operating properly; that makes it nearly impossible to challenge a ticket on the basis of the camera malfunctioning.

The reality is that New Orleans (and many, many other cities) rely on revenue from traffic cameras for their annual budget. A report in The Atlantic by Yonah Freemark detailed the conundrum many cities face when they start camera programs by contracting with private companies:

The concept is straightforward: By increasing enforcement of these traffic violations, drivers will be less likely to commit the offense, which accounts for 2 percent of fatal car accidents in the country, or more than 600 deaths a year.

But the deals municipalities strike with the distributors of the cameras... may be putting the public in danger... The problem is that many of the contracts signed with these companies force cities to commit to standards that encourage the running of red lights...

Some of the contracts, written by the companies themselves and later signed by municipal governments, require each camera to record a certain number of red light-runners every year and for police departments to issue a minimum number of tickets. The companies, after all, have a fiscal incentive to have as many people as possible move through the intersection illegally, since they usually pocket a percentage of the ticket fee.

The reality is that there is very little data to support increased safety in areas monitored by the cameras. New Orleans continues to cite safety as its main reason for its camera program, but the facts tell a different story, one that has the city relying on dipping into the pockets of citizens with little positive effect for those same citizens.

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