Remember the days of driving at 3 a.m. and nobody's on the road? You come to an intersection, look both ways to make sure no one is coming or watching, and run the red light. No more. Big Brother is everywhere, nosy and so very intrusive. Red-light cameras are about as Big Brotherish as it gets.
City-parish leaders in Baton Rouge are hoping red-light cameras bring in an extra $500,000 next year after renegotiating a deal with the private contractor running the system. The half-million is on top of the more than $200,000 per month the city-parish averaged collecting this year.
Technological advances often make us all more efficient and better at what we do. The work government often does involves finding ways to grow itself. Technology allowing cameras to capture the license plates and send tickets to each and every driver running red-lights at a given intersection should be a cash cow. But if there's ever a place where technological advances are undone by ineptness, it would be in government.
In the past 10 years, since the city-parish has been issuing tickets based on red-light cameras, most of the money has yet to be collected. How much? Try $43 million. One guy, Sean Watson, owes more than $26,000 in unpaid tickets and late fees from the red-light camera program.
"It's not enforceable. Why pay it? It doesn't count against you, " Watson told an Advocate reporter this past summer at his apartment front door. He then wished her a blessed day.
People are obviously catching onto the fact the city-parish is doing nothing to collect fines from red-light runners caught on camera who refuse to pay. In 2016, only 42.6 percent paid their fine. Last year it dropped to 38 percent, and this year fewer than 24 percent have paid.
Drivers, on average, are fined $117 per ticket for ignoring red light signals, and an additional $35 in late fees after 60 days and then another $15 when the tickets go unpaid for 90 days.
Chief Administration Officer Darryl Gissel says the mayor's office is still evaluating the options they have to collect the more than $43 million in unpaid red-light camera fines.
"All of this just came up, and it's just the mayor's second year (in office)," Gissel said. "We just need to sit down and figure out the method we'll use to address it."
But based on a 2007 ordinance, the city-parish already has the legal authority to boot vehicles with unpaid red-light tickets, to report the debt to collection agencies and take offenders to small claims court. Why city-parish leaders haven't done so in the past 10 years is a mystery.
There's plenty of evidence red-light cameras are nothing more than a full-proof way to grow government coffers, and that they have little to do with public safety. Several media outlets including The Washington Post, Winnipeg Sun, Philadelphia Weekly, KCAL-TV in Los Angeles and KATU-TV in Portland investigated red-light cameras and found they do not make intersections safer. In fact, in most cases they make intersections more dangerous since drivers, fearing heavy fines, are more likely to slam on their brakes if they see the light change causing them to get hit from behind.
Keep in mind there's already a deterrent in place to speeding through an intersection when the light is red. It's called getting killed. You would think that would serve as a bigger deterrent than the threat of paying a fine.
But the temptation of easy money is apparently too much to resist for city-parish officials. Gissel says Baton Rouge is looking to expand traffic cameras to include catching speeders. But if it's more money they want, shouldn't they just go after those who are refusing to pay their fines? It's not fair to those who do pay.
Technology provides government officials with a gold mine in cash, and yet they leave most of it uncollected. Some who view government as a bloated beast doing too many things may consider that a good thing. It might not hurt government to miss a meal now and again.
Email Dan Fagan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @DanFaganShow.