They keep you on your toes, or, better yet, they keep your foot on the brake. Most drivers are keenly aware of the red light and speed limit cameras posted across Orleans and Jefferson parishes. If you run a red light or speed in one of these surveillance zones, the cameras' all-seeing eyes will catch you — and you'll get a bill in the mail.
There's no arguing the cameras generate revenue. Since installing the cameras in 2007, Jefferson Parish has taken in about $14 million in fines. New Orleans, which began its program last April, issued 61,531 tickets in 2008. A red light violation in New Orleans costs $140 and speeding tickets, depending on how fast you're going, vary from $80 to $240.
What has been disputed is whether the cameras actually make roadways safer or are simply a cash cow for parish governments. State representative Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, says the technology appears to be "a cash grab" by local governments. He and state Rep. Jeff Arnold, D-New Orleans, have authored a bill to prohibit the cameras' use. Richmond contends the devices are unconstitutional because they contravene the state's uniform traffic laws by allowing municipalities to set up their own traffic offenses. In 2007, using that same logic, the Minnesota Supreme Court deemed red light cameras unconstitutional. More important, Richmond says some researchers have questioned whether the cameras produce an overall decrease in the number of accidents.
To support his argument, the eastern New Orleans lawmaker cites a report by the Tennessee Center for Policy Research. The report concludes that while cameras may reduce the number of "T-bone" or right-angle collisions, they increase the number of rear-end crashes because so many drivers stop abruptly at red lights — to avoid getting tickets. Proponents of traffic cameras cite other studies that say the devices reduce both rear-end and T-bone collisions. In Lafayette Parish, which has used cameras since October 2007, the traffic and transportation department produced a report citing an overall 68 percent decrease in total crashes at intersections using the equipment.
Richmond also says his constituents oppose traffic cameras, and if given the chance they would vote against allowing the city to use them. In Sulphur, La., the local city council passed an ordinance allowing speed cameras in school zones, but angry citizens petitioned the city government to put it to a popular vote. More than 85 percent of Sulphur voters then rejected the cameras. While it's no surprise that voters would toss out almost any mechanism that helps government hold them accountable and makes them pay for traffic violations, the truth is that money collected from camera-based citations supports important governmental services. In New Orleans, the city has added a $5 surcharge to camera-generated fines to aid the underfunded Orleans Public Defender's office. Lafayette uses its revenue for traffic or pedestrian public safety programs and street improvements. Richmond is unmoved. "The end result doesn't affect the fact that it's unconstitutional," he says.
Both sides have a point, and it's not easy to discern who's got the facts on their side. If instituting a civil fine for a misdemeanor traffic offense violates state law, then all the good intentions in the world don't justify using the cameras. On the other hand, if the cameras are declared legal — a federal court is weighing that issue in a case brought by two Metairie lawyers against Jefferson Parish — then the cameras could be important safety measures that also aid cash-strapped parish governments. The court case will be resolved in its own time. Meanwhile, we'd like to see an independent analysis, perhaps by the Legislative Auditor, of traffic cameras and accidents.
We'd also like to see lawmakers adopt another of Richmond's ideas: increasing the duration of yellow lights at intersections with stoplights. In another study conducted by the Texas Transportation Institute, researchers found that adding an extra second to yellow light durations decreased red light violations by at least 50 percent. Richmond says local governments already can lengthen yellow light times. We'd like to go one step farther and suggest the state set mandatory minimum times for yellow lights. That could save lives — and it would cost drivers nothing.