The East Baton Rouge Parish red-light camera system continues to operate on what amounts to the honor system, and one Metro Council member is urging drivers to stop paying.
In 2008, Arizona-based American Traffic Solutions installed the parish’s first cameras, which supporters say cut down on unsafe driving practices. Since they appeared, 350,978 tickets have been issued for drivers who ran red lights.
But only about half pay.
The city-parish also is trying to figure out how to handle years-old cases in which drivers were caught running red lights but couldn’t be located when it was time to mail out fines.
Tickets start at $117, but there is a $50 extra charge for multiple offenders and $35 to $50 late fees. Depending on the exact ticket cost, the city gets about 55 to 65 percent of the money, which is used to fund traffic safety. American Traffic Solutions gets the remaining cut.
There is no punishment for vehicle owners who ignore the notice. The city-parish doesn’t sue violators or boot their cars. The information doesn’t get reported to insurance companies or filed in police databases. It isn’t a hindrance to renewing a license, nor is it filed in driving records.
The policy has led some council members to deride the system as money-grubbing.
The total amount raised was not available last week, but as of 2013, the program was generating between $1.5 million and $2.1 million per year, with millions more left uncollected.
Councilman Ryan Heck, who has advocated for discontinuing the program, said red-light camera tickets have nothing to do with driver safety.
“We’re too afraid to do the right thing because we want the money,” Heck said. “I advise everybody to not pay them. Ever.”
Councilman Joel Boé didn’t go so far as to encourage civil disobedience but did note that there’s nothing to stop drivers from throwing the notices in the trash.
“I think it’s a cash-grab at best,” he said. “I don’t agree with (the fines). I don’t like them.”
Heck and Boé both voted against extending American Traffic Solutions’ contract when it went up for renewal in 2013, though the measure ultimately passed. At the time, the mayor-president’s chief administrative officer, William Daniel, said city administrators were researching options to go after drivers who ignore their notices.
Nothing has really changed 21/2 years later. But Daniel said the city still is considering “a number of different things” to compel debtors to pay up, possibly using as a model the way parking tickets are handled.
However, Boé said there haven’t been any discussions about altering the system since the American Traffic Solutions contract was renewed in 2013, and he believes the city administration doesn’t have an appetite for changing the status quo.
The city has three options, according to Assistant Chief Administrative Officer John Price. It can boot or tow vehicles, report owners to a collections agency or sue them in small claims court, he said.
The city does work with a collections agency, Price said, but the agency only sends out letters.
Any other types of punishment likely would have to be approved by the state Legislature, according to city-parish officials, but the state appears to be moving in the opposite direction. The Senate just unanimously passed a bill requiring local governments to post signs warning drivers of red-light cameras. The item is now headed to the governor’s desk.
Price emphasized that just because the city isn’t towing people’s cars today doesn’t mean it won’t begin enforcing the red-light camera tickets in the future. Whoever is elected to be the next mayor-president could decide on a different policy.
As it stands now, about 1 percent of cases get dismissed every year, and the number of people paying their red-light camera fines has dropped. In 2014, the city issued 47,215 notices, and just 50.4 percent of drivers paid. Last year, 62,605 went out, and the number of drivers who paid shrunk to 47.5 percent, meaning more people ignored the notices than heeded them.
Heck said he hopes that number continues to drop until American Traffic Solutions finally can’t make money off the program and leaves town.
The company did not respond to a request for comment.
The city also occasionally has trouble finding the people accused of breaking the law. Since the program began, 50,000 cases — 1 out of every 7 — had vehicle owners who were hard to find, Price said. Often, they moved without changing their address information with the Office of Motor Vehicles, which the city uses to send notices.
In the past few months, American Traffic Solutions has used new software to track down their current addresses, and the city still is trying to determine how to press forward with cases against people who ran red lights six or seven years ago, he said.
Price staunchly defended the program and said people should be more concerned about over 350,000 instances of red-light running than enforcement of the camera program.
“You’ve got to do something wrong in order to get a ticket,” he said.
The red-light program would be better if it was more strictly enforced, but it is still punishing wrongdoers and encouraging safe driving, he added.
“It’s simply the use of technology,” he said.
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