Anthony Cherolis

New Orleans is an example of how to implement speed and traffic light cameras in a way that both loses public support and does less to improve public safety. While Connecticut legislators and other states are considering camera-based traffic enforcement programs, it behooves them to study what works – and to understand what does not.

New Orleans’ poorly managed camera enforcement program started in 2008. Their Traffic Camera Safety Program was initiated by a 2007 city ordinance. The city’s goals – to reduce risky driving, speeding, crashes, and fatalities – were laudable. But the implementation of the program was not.

In 2017, the city of New Orleans took in $24 million from the camera program, while the contractor, American Traffic Solutions (part of Verra Mobility), based in Arizona, made at least $6.8 million. That financial driver is the first poor practice. A camera-based enforcement system that extracts so much private profit is going to be seen as profit-driven rather than public safety-focused.

Image from the Verra Mobility ‘Fixed Speed Safety Cameras’ brochure.

A January 2020 report by the New Orleans Inspector General noted six major findings. These findings and the lessons learned should be required reading for any state legislature or city considering a camera-enforcement program.

First Finding – “NOPD [New Orleans Police Department] failed to administer the Traffic Camera Safety Program as required by ordinance. Specifically, the program lacked defined and delineated management responsibilities for communication, oversight, and program monitoring. As a result, the difficulty of properly identifying and correcting problems prevented the program from achieving its full potential as a public safety mechanism.”

The ownership and oversight of the camera enforcement program was somewhere between the Department of Public Works and the NOPD. With a lack of clear leadership, issues were left unresolved and the system operation relied more heavily on the contractor that benefited from increasing tickets without benefit to public safety. The takeaway is that a camera-based enforcement system needs to have clear ownership and delineation of responsibilities.

Second Finding – “The Traffic Camera Safety Program erroneously issued tickets in school zones when schools were not in session, violating local ordinance.”

A general district-level schedule was provided to the contractor for determining school zone violations. That schedule did not align with the actual schedule in many cases, leaving some school times unenforced and applying illegal enforcement outside of school times at others. Because of the lack of oversight, instead of resolving the issue and refunding illegally issued citations, owners of the registered vehicles were required to challenge their tickets individually. If school zone enforcement is enabled in a camera enforcement program, the details about school schedules matter. Having responsive management of the program is important for addressing issues that may come up during initial implementation or a pilot phase.

Third Finding – “The Traffic Camera Safety Program sometimes issued citations more than 30 days after the registered owner of the vehicle was identified, in violation of the local ordinance.” There were 42,000 illegally late citations in 2016 and 1,300 late citations in 2017.

The ordinance allowing for camera-based enforcement put a reasonable time limit on how long the New Orleans Police Department had to issue the citation after the registered vehicle was identified. Traffic enforcement citations are going to be less effective, and more irritating, when too much time goes by between the violation and receiving the ticket. The benefit of driver behavior change is delayed, reducing the public safety benefit. A time limit requiring timely delivery of the citation to the registered vehicle owner is a best practice, but it must be understood and adhered to by the agency running the program.

Fourth Finding – “NOPD officers reviewed 94 percent of citations faster than the NOPD’s internal policies allowed, jeopardizing the quality of the review process.” An experienced officer might be expected to spend 30 to 40 seconds reviewing each video to make a violation determination, but 58% of the citations in 2017 were concluded after less than 10 seconds worth of review time by a police officer.

Camera-based traffic enforcement and the resultant citations are built on a basis of trust. Officers that are churning through the video review at a rapid speed that leads the public to believe that they are not part of a fair or just system is a terrible strategy for engendering public trust. A trustworthy system would have better oversight and transparent reporting on how videos are being reviewed before a citation is verified and issued.

Fifth Finding – “The Traffic Camera Safety Program violated the ordinance by not imposing late fees and other penalties on drivers who failed to appear for ticket hearings. This failure created a loophole that permanently suspended action on tickets, denied the City revenue, and was unfair to drivers who paid their tickets or followed the hearing process.” The system’s appeal process had an unresolved loophole, where a driver could schedule a hearing to challenge their ticket. If they failed to show up to the hearing, the ticket ended up suspended indefinitely without resolution or late fees.

Any camera-based ticketing should have a fully planned and tested system from data collection, data management, ticket issuance, and through a challenge process. The program management should identify and resolve systemic issues and resolve them in a timely fashion. An unfair and dysfunctional system is not going to maintain public support.

Sixth Finding – “By failing to notify drivers of overpayments on traffic camera citations and proactively refund their money, the City potentially violated the Louisiana Uniform Unclaimed Property Act and put the City at risk of penalties.”

Drivers that were issued erroneous citations were on their own to challenge them. The known systemic issues were left unresolved and funds that were illegally collected were not returned to those ticketed. This not only violated Louisiana state law, but it further reduced public trust. The lack of clear program management and the fundraising/profit priority of the New Orleans system encouraged both the contractor and the city of New Orleans to put the onus of regaining citation funds on the individuals who had been improperly cited.

Unannounced Reduction in Threshold Speeds It is hard to believe, but the city of New Orleans and the contracted company went further to erode support of the camera enforcement program. On Feb 4, 2019, the program quietly reduced the ticketing thresholds for speeding. The school zone threshold was lowered from 6 mph to 4 mph over the posted limit, and the non-school zone threshold went from 10 mph to 8 mph over the limit. In contrast, the New York City speed camera threshold is 11 mph, and has been consistent since it began in 2014.

What makes this change more egregious is that it was intentionally done without a public announcement or awareness effort. Not even the city council was notified of the abrupt change. The public statement came months later in April after many tickets had been issued. The lowering of the threshold was explained as a safety improvement by New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell, who ignored internal recommendations to take the change public before it went into effect.

Defaced and Obscured License Plates – When a traffic enforcement and ticketing campaign is slipshod, engaged in profit taking, and unfair, it is reasonable to expect direct action by those impacted. Residents in New Orleans have learned to obscure their license plates, avoiding recognition by the traffic camera systems. The illegal license plate modifications are unlikely to be caught or corrected by the New Orleans Police Department, as traffic enforcement is now largely left to the camera system. Any city or state that pursues a camera-based enforcement system should be prepared for defaced and obscured license plates, and look into the best (and worst) practices for addressing “ghost cars.” 

Frustrated by weak intervention by the New York Police Department, Gersh Kuntzman has taken to unmodifying license plates himself, documenting those efforts with entertaining social media videos about “Criminal Mischief.” Gersh’s motivation was the arrest of Adam White, who was charged with criminal mischief for removing an obstruction from a license plate that would have prevented identification by tolling and speed cameras. Adam White lucked out, as the Brooklyn District Attorney recently declined to prosecute. I doubt that residents in New Orleans would be motivated to attempt vigilante de-modifcation of license plates with such a dysfunctional and unfair system of camera enforcement.

Gersh Kuntzman in NYC has been making videos of himself un-defacing license plates that would obscure identification by the speed and toll cameras.

Connecticut’s state legislature has been considering camera-based speed and traffic light enforcement for several years, and the 2021 budget implementer included language that allows for a construction zone speed camera pilot. The last public news on that topic was in late 2021, mentioning a Summer 2022 start. When queried on the pilot, Josh Morgan, CT DOT Spokesperson, replied, “We are currently in the design and testing phase, and the pilot will launch in 2023. There will be robust public communication in advance of work zone speed cameras being deployed and throughout the duration of the pilot program.” The pilot is being managed by the construction department at CT DOT and is expected to be active in time for the start of the Spring 2023 construction season. 

Excerpt from the Connecticut highway work zone speed camera pilot law. As of December 8th, 2022 the pilot has not commenced. The pilot period expires at the end of 2023.

There were 55 crash deaths on Connecticut interstates in 2021, up from 45 in 2020. Roughly one-third of fatal crashes over the past 10 years have involved speeding, according to the UConn Crash Data Repository. It will be interesting to see if the Connecticut State Police Union (CPSU) continues to oppose the construction zone speed camera program. In December 2021, “The state police union’s attorney told News 8 they are adamantly against the program and will be educating the public on how to get out of the tickets.” The proposal by the union to undercut camera-based traffic enforcement would seem to work against both state law and public safety.

State Rep. Roland Lemar, a New Haven Democrat who is also co-chair of the Transportation Committee, said Monday [Dec. 5, 2022] that the General Assembly has lacked the political will to endorse traffic enforcement cameras due to their unpopularity among members of the public, and that he intends to revisit the camera issue in hopes of passing a broader pilot program during next year’s session.

This will be an interesting and dynamic conversation. That conversation should include analysis of both the worst and best practices from existing programs as Connecticut charts a course to safer streets for all road users. Effectiveness, fairness, competent management, required reporting, public outreach, and transparency are important aspects that New Orleans fumbled in their camera-based traffic enforcement program. Connecticut legislators and road safety professionals can learn from those mistakes and hopefully avoid most, if not all, of them.

Functional Examples of Speed Camera Enforcement – The New York City speed camera enforcement program started as a multiyear school zone pilot in 2014 and closed with a thorough report. Since that pilot, many locations have been added and the program expanded in mid-2022 beyond school hours. There is an updated program report through 2020. This long-running program in the Northeast should be evaluated and understood by legislators and public safety experts.  

Providence, RI more recently implemented a school zone speed camera program in 2018 that can also be a reference. Providence’s step-wise approach appears to be mirroring that of New York City, starting with a few school zones and $50 fines applied to the registered vehicle. Like NYC, Providence is gradually expanding to add more school zone locations. In researching this article, there was not a readily available program report and a request to Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza was unanswered. Program reporting is a best practice that Providence does not appear to have included.

Stay tuned to CT News Junkie for coverage and analysis of the CT Legislative Transportation Committee‘s scrutiny of proposed bills related to camera-based traffic enforcement.

Figure from the New York City Automated Speed Enforcement Program, 2014 to 2020 Report showing the “Decline in Average Daily Speeding Violations in Camera-Enforced School Speed Zones Along Key Corridors” where school zone speed cameras have been installed.
2014 to 2020 NYC School Zone Speed Camera Repeat Violators – Most school zone speed camera violators only receive one ticket. The State of NY recently implemented a program that would require egregious repeat violators to take a driving safety course or risk losing their vehicle impounded. Source: New York City Automated Speed Enforcement Program, 2014 to 2020 Report.
Excerpt of the New Orleans ordinance allowing for an Automated Traffic Enforcement System.

Anthony Cherolis is a former aerospace engineer that co-founded BiCi Co. and the Transport Hartford Academy. He writes about transportation, development, and environmental topics. Anthony lives in Indianapolis, Indiana and takes an annual cross country bike tour to explore cities, towns, rural America, and beyond. Between bike tours, he enjoys working as a bike mechanic and non-profit communications consultant.

The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of or any of the author's other employers.