New Orleanians have a right to feel flummoxed by Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration and its shifting — if not shifty — approach to traffic cameras, particularly those in school zones. At her July 2017 mayoral campaign announcement, Cantrell drew cheers when she told the crowd, “We don’t know if traffic cameras are making our streets safer. But we do know those cameras are costing our residents money that could be spent on their families. As your mayor, I will suspend the use of the cameras until it can be proven that they actually work as intended.”
Backstage, though, she walked back the statement, saying she supported removal of cameras that were “recently installed” by then-Mayor Mitch Landrieu. One day later, a spokesman for the Cantrell campaign clarified that Cantrell’s original statement was the correct one and that she would remove all traffic cameras if elected mayor.
That never happened. In January of this year, Cantrell’s office announced that she would keep in place all school zone cameras and deactivate 20 of the other 30 cameras. That was good news for drivers who oppose the city’s use of cameras. The bad news didn’t get much attention until last week, when we learned that all remaining cameras had been recalibrated. The city previously let motorists drive up to 25 MPH in school zones — and up to 10 MPH above the posted limit elsewhere. Now, the city issues tickets to people driving 24 MPH in school zones and 8 MPH over other posted limits. The change came with no advance notice from City Hall.
Those of us who lived through Katrina remember spending money on garbage bags, not Gucci bags.
The city, of course, is under no obligation to provide any wiggle room at all when it comes to enforcing speed limits, though there’s plenty of evidence that speed-detection devices often have calibration issues. We suspect the previous buffers between posted limits and tolerated speeds were set up not as a courtesy, but to head off claims from drivers who got tickets for traveling 21 or 22 MPH through a school zone or just above other posted limits.
Still, for an administration that promised transparency, accountability and “intentionality,” pulling a switcheroo like this with no warning either to residents or the New Orleans City Council smacks of bad faith. Moreover, it gives credence to the argument that the cameras are more about revenue than public safety. (In 2018, traffic camera ticket fines added nearly $30 million to the city’s general fund.)
One person wrongly put to death is one too many — but a 2016 Gambit cover story reported on 58 death row prisoners since 2000 whose sentences have been overturned.
“We are tightening enforcement efforts in our school zones to help encourage safer driving," Cantrell spokesman Trey Caruso said in an email to The New Orleans Advocate. "Going 2 miles over, or 10 miles over the limit: you’re in violation either way.”
True, but if the city truly wanted to “encourage safer driving,” wouldn’t it trumpet the change — in advance — so people could obey the rule? And is 23 MPH really that much safer than 25 MPH?
Cantrell was leading a delegation to Cuba last week, so she wasn’t available for comment. In the meantime, drivers should stick to all posted limits, since the Cantrell administration is not being candid about cameras.