New Orleans officials have lowered the speeds that trigger traffic camera tickets, ensnaring an unknown number of drivers who thought they were abiding by well-publicized rules for what to do to avoid getting busted.
The change, which apparently went into effect in February, was not announced by Mayor LaToya Cantrell's administration.
Cantrell had made eliminating the city's traffic cameras a key promise of her mayoral campaign in 2017, arguing they were "nickel-and-diming" residents. She scaled back that plan once in office, however, limiting it to the removal of most cameras outside of school zones as part of a plan that ended up generating fewer tickets and therefore less money than the city expected.
The city always has allowed drivers a cushion of a few miles per hour over the posted speed limit before the cameras are activated. It's that cushion that has been cut back.
Asked about the change on Monday, an administration official did not say when the city officially reduced the cushion and did not say what speeds now result in a ticket. The administration also did not answer questions about whether the decision was made before or after it became clear the city was missing out on more cash than officials had estimated.
“We are tightening enforcement efforts in our school zones to help encourage safer driving," Cantrell spokesman Trey Caruso said in an email. "Going 2 miles over, or 10 miles over the limit: you’re in violation either way. We want people to pay attention and to be safe around our schools.”
A month after Mayor LaToya Cantrell ordered the removal of some of New Orleans' traffic cameras, the city is seeing a slightly larger drop in …
Jarvis Lewis, chief of staff for Councilman Jay H. Banks, said Banks' office had reached out to the administration after getting complaints from residents. Lewis said the office was also told the change was being made for safety reasons and that it would affect both cameras inside school zones and those on regular roadways.
Though the law allows for tickets anytime someone travels more than 20 mph near a school during the morning and afternoon school-zone hours, and anytime they exceed the speed limit elsewhere, there has always been a buffer in place for motorists.
Since 2012, drivers could travel up to 26 mph before being ticketed in school zones and up to 10 mph over the speed limit elsewhere without seeing a traffic camera's flash.
By lowering those thresholds without notice, the city essentially has been ticketing drivers who had taken officials at their word about what speed would result in a citation.
The fact that drivers were being ticketed at lower speeds was first reported on Monday by nola.com.
Taking advantage of the large leeways, which were officially adopted by former Mayor Mitch Landrieu's administration, became routine for many thousands of local drivers.
That was the case for Janice Schaff, who said she never paid much attention to the school zone cameras near ReNew SciTech Academy because she rarely drove over the 26-mph threshold that would have set off their shutters when she drove to her daughter's Jackson Avenue home in the Garden District.
But not anymore.
Schaff said she was “shocked” when she was slapped with a $75 ticket in February, even though she said her speedometer never nudged past 25 mph.
“It was like, $75? Really? For 4 miles?” said Schaff, 67. “We are making a U-turn there, so how were we speeding?”
Exactly how many drivers found themselves in Schaff's situation is unknown. A thread in a Facebook group for Irish Channel residents includes multiple people saying they were ticketed for driving about 24 mph in a school zone.
City officials have long defended the cameras as increasing safety.
But while Cantrell’s camp says the latest change will promote safety, Schaff questions why it wasn’t announced in advance, so she could have avoided the $75 ticket.
So could her daughter, Maegen Schaff Vincent. The two got snapped by the same camera a day apart.
“Hers was for going 24 mph, and mine was for 25,” Schaff said. “Before recently, though, it wouldn’t have flashed you.”
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Last year, camera tickets produced nearly $30 million in revenue for the city, though officials had projected that removing 20 of the 31 cameras outside school zones would cut that by about $4 million.
Those cameras came down at the beginning of the year. About a month later, however, the Cantrell administration acknowledged the city was losing more money than it had expected. Instead of an anticipated 13 percent decrease in tickets for January, the cameras caught 18 percent fewer drivers in violations.
The new speed thresholds for tickets apparently were rolled out about the same time.
Despite the reduction in tickets in January, finance officials last month told the City Council's Budget Committee that the camera program was bringing in $2 million more than it had the previous year.
When Councilman Joe Giarrusso asked how that could be, since the city had taken down many of the cameras, Chief Financial Officer Norman White did not mention any change in policy.
Instead, he said the money included in that report could reflect tickets issued in the prior year and that the number would go down after it was properly allocated.