By Jeff Thomas
Is the city of New Orleans deliberately trying to trick drivers into getting tickets? Is so much of the budget dependent upon the city collecting traffic fines that the city is trying to confuse drivers about the rules of the road? Why are there so many different red light camera signs in New Orleans?
If you started seeing green stop signs in certain parts of town, you might think you something strange is going on. And if you saw traffic signals with purple, blue and brown colored lights with those lights in a circle pattern you would certainly not know what to do when you got to that traffic signal. At the advent of the automobile industry, the variety of signs on roads created confusion and unsafe conditions for the hordes of new drives across the country. Signs from town to town and states not only had different shapes, but sizes, colors and wording were all arbitrary and haphazard. Police officers were able to capitalize and penalize drivers who disobeyed the clearly posted albeit totally random and illogical sign. Drivers were bewildered.
But in 1935, the Federal Highway Administration created “The Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices.” Signs were standardized across the country and the current red stop sign can be easily recognized even on a dark road on a rainy night with low visibility. Everybody benefitted as states across the country installed the new national standards with which we are all familiar. Driving across America, I feel confident that I am properly informed and prepared to react accordingly when I see a posted sign. In fact, I must admit to getting a rush and feeling of freedom about beating the system when I go 45 in a 35 mph zone. And if a police officer pulled me over and issued a ticket, if I were white, I would surely argue not about my speeding but about the waste of police manpower when people are selling drugs a few blocks over. (But I digress in a twisted fit of racial jealousy.)
But here’s a unifying notion. We can all look at the different variations of the new traffic camera signs and be equally confused. I feel pretty certain that the city administration has not concocted a technologically advanced camera system that can pick out poor black people for ticket issuance. Nonetheless, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu has found a way to turn the clock back almost 100 years. Adding 3 different signs means all New Orleanians are subject to the same confusion and lack of information when entering an area that might have traffic cameras.
You may have noticed the signs going up around town recently. Despite a 100 years of standardization of 1 sign and the same color indicating an action to be taken or important information being conveyed, in NOLA we have three different sizes and colors and phrases being posted to “inform” you that if you speed through the next block, your vehicle will be photographed and a ticket mailed to your address. And the location of these signs might make you think we have had a rash of school kids being hit by speeding cars.
In a city beset with poverty and working class people, ratcheting up the traffic camera enforcement is worse than increasing regressive sales taxes and can have more far reaching effects. In fact, using trick methods to entrap poor people can have devastating impacts on families and our community. These unfair and illegal traffic cameras will actually contribute to the crime rate and possibly even cause murder in the streets of New Orleans. But before we investigate this tragic potential, let’s focus on the willingness of the Landrieu administration to trick people in an attempt to maximize income to the city.
Hidden in the widely proclaimed $40 million public safety expenditure, $11 million dollars are dedicated to parking enforcement and traffic cameras. This deceitful expenditure – claiming to fight crime yet spending money on cars with mobile traffic cameras and increasing funding of the boot enforcement contract of an out of state vendor – is an example of the administration’s willingness to use bait and switch tactics to gain the public’s trust while wasting the funding on projects unpopular with the people. Now the city will have 12 more vehicles roaming the streets with license plate recognition cameras searching for cars to boot. Mailed camera fines and booting cars is one of the few new steady income streams to city government that is growing.
But an examination of this program is troublesome. The city claims these cameras promote safety. However, according to the National Institute of Health, overall “speed cameras did not statistically contribute to an increase or decrease in the number of accidents. Red light cameras are effective at reducing crashes at traffic signals. While most people obey traffic lights all the time, aggressive drivers and poor decision makers cause crashes at traffic signals. These drivers are deterred by clear signage and constant enforcement[i]. So while rear end crashes tick up slightly at traffic signals, overall crashes are decreased as aggressive drivers respect cameras.
In New Orleans, we not only have numerous kinds of signs, we have irregular enforcement. The use of mobile car based cameras means that sometimes there really is no camera enforcement. Many cities install their own cameras and monitor the system. The Landrieu administration has outsourced many parts this oversight and instead focuses on prosecution and collecting a commission from the vendor. In short, the city has a vested interest in generating as much income from fines as possible, since the city gets 30% of all income generated by the program. In fact, the city has collected nearly $25 million on traffic camera fees in the past 5 years.
Non-standard signs are the new normal. Sometimes a camera is in the zone but sometimes there is no camera. As the NIH notes, these cameras are most effective at traffic signals. There are hundreds of thousands of traffic crashes at red lights annually in New Orleans. There have been no accidents involving children hit by speeding cars though school zones during the entire Landrieu administration. Yet, in New Orleans we have 5 times as many camera zones in school zones than at traffic signals. Furthermore, the non-standardization of the signs contributes to the success of this program.
It gets worse. When the city first introduced the mobile car cameras, they violated state law by using street level mobile signs to “warn” drivers of the speed trap ahead. Senator Troy Carter pointed out, “These street level signs violate state law that requires permanent posting of signs 500 feet from the cameras.” That’s why you see the new signs popping up everywhere around town. Even though the city issued thousands of tickets using the wrong signs, the city continues to illegally prosecute citizens who received violations from the mobile cameras with the street level signs. In the city of New Orleans, these mobile traffic cameras are illegal and still violate state law because there is no consistency with the signage. Yet the mayor will use the safety of school children to disguise the fact that the most expensive tickets are for speeding in a school zone.
In preparation, five years ago the mayor tripled the fines for speeding in school zones. Now he has hundreds of signs across town, that may or may not be in use at any given time. According to a Texas A&M study, “The City of New Orleans installed red light cameras at 17 intersections. After seven months of operation: Violations dropped by about 85 percent. Yet the city has installed 5 times more camera sign locations in school zones, where there have been no accidents involving children being hit as pedestrians during the entire tenure of the Landrieu administration.
This week, we have focused on the shenanigans and fines focus of the administration. Next week, we will focus on how this emphasis causes crime in the city.