Ten years have passed since the city of New Orleans accepted and implemented the automated red-light and speed camera enforcement program. This is the longer way of describing the traffic cameras that issue tickets to drivers. Everyone who drives a car in New Orleans has an opinion on the cameras and the tickets they issue.
As someone who possesses neither a car nor a driver’s license, I saw no problem with the cameras and how they operate. I was part of the group of people who might say, “As long as you’re driving safely and obeying traffic laws, you have nothing to worry about.”
While riding in a cab in New Orleans, I asked the driver what he thought of the traffic cameras and the tickets that they so often result in. He was of the opinion that the cameras are there for a reason. He said, “As long as you’re driving safely and paying attention to red lights and speed limits, you shouldn’t have any problem [with them]. You wouldn’t speed in front of a police officer, so why would you speed at all? If it’s illegal, it’s illegal.”
Upon being asked for their opinions on these cameras, a lot of people have responses much like this. On the other hand, many people have strong opinions against the traffic cameras as well. Undeniably, there is a strong sense of public opposition to the camera ticketing system, and this does not only pertain to New Orleans. This camera enforcement program exists in cities all across the country and is often met with backlash and public outcry.
According to statistics from the Texas Transportation Institute, these camera tickets have helped lower the number of accidents at intersections with red lights, yet most drivers seem to think that the pros do not outweigh the cons. Many believe that these camera programs are just money-making schemes that cities use to exploit their citizens and to add a surplus of ticket money to their budgets.
It would be tough to prove that cities are only using these programs to grub for money, as there are solid statistics to show that they often result in a decrease in traffic accidents. However, in 2015, the CEO of RedFlex, one of the largest vendors of these red-light traffic cameras, was sentenced to time in federal prison for an extremely complex and far-reaching bribery scandal. This gives merit to the idea that these cameras and tickets are mostly used with money in mind.
Last year, the city of New Orleans was ordered by a judge to pay back approximately 28 million dollars in traffic ticket fines to people who received tickets from cameras between 2008 and 2010. These were the first three years that the program was operating in New Orleans. There were scandals involving the camera-ticketing program, including accusations of corruption within the off-duty police detail that was manually reviewing the cameras and the pictures they were taking. Regardless, the amount of money the city has made from the program has steadily increased almost every year since it began.
There’s also a strong feeling that the traffic-camera programs are unjust to drivers. In the city of New Miami in Ohio, the program was deemed unconstitutional because it did not give drivers due process. The city was forced to pay back all of the money received from those camera-enforced tickets. Nevertheless, the city currently continues to use the cameras—but only when they are being monitored by humans, not a computer program.
New Miami is only one small example of cities taking issue with these camera systems. The California Supreme Court was very close to deeming the cameras unconstitutional in 2014, but failed to do so. Certain cities in California that previously utilized the traffic-camera ticketing system have ditched them for different reasons, mostly due to the notion that they are unconstitutional for a couple reasons: They take photos of people and their property without permission, and they don’t allow people to have due process in their sentencing.
Another huge problem with the cameras has more to do with the speed-limit cameras than the red-light cameras. If you run a red light, you run a red light. Even if nobody appears to be coming, you should never run a red light, and almost everyone would agree with that. The cameras that are triggered when a driver is going over the speed limit, however, often have reliability issues that could be avoided if an actual police officer were there instead of a computer-operated camera system.
In New Orleans, there are many speed limit zones that begin and end abruptly. Drivers can exit a 35 MPH zone and enter a 20 MPH zone instantly, and vice versa. Because drivers cannot change a car’s speed that drastically in a split second, it seems obvious that they would need at least a few seconds to either slow down or speed up, to match the speed limit in the zone they are entering. Drivers often complain that the cameras do not take this into account.
Chloe Abarbanel is a graduate student at Tulane who has dealt with these kinds of cameras, both in New Orleans and in her home state of California, where they were eventually banned. When asked her opinion on the speeding cameras, she said, “I’ve gotten speeding tickets less than half a block after entering a 20 MPH zone in a school zone. One minute, the speed limit is 35 MPH, and the moment I enter the school zone, I’m expected to slow down to 20 MPH. If a real police officer had been, he or she would have seen that I was in the process of slowing down to 20 MPH and would have given me a couple more seconds to reach the limit. It’s dangerous to expect me to slam on my brakes and reduce my speed that quickly. Real officers can use common sense; cameras can’t.”
It seems fair to say that the red-light cameras do their job and objectively make certain intersections safer. Although it may be an annoyance to drivers, all one needs to do to avoid tickets from these cameras is to obey red lights at intersections. The effectiveness of the speeding cameras, though, is open to much debate. While, in general, speed limits should be obeyed absolutely, there is some worthwhile allowance for human error that comes with actual officers issuing speeding tickets.
It seems that if this system of issuing tickets based on information gathered from cameras is to remain, it must be revised and improved. Perhaps the locations of speed-detecting cameras could be put a few blocks into a zone with a lower speed limit, instead of immediately after the speed limit sign. Perhaps footage could be reviewed by human eyes before a ticket is issued. There are many possibilities for improving this system, but until some of these improvements are made, we’ll continue to have fewer accidents at intersections—and many more traffic tickets—under its vigilant virtual eyes.