One afternoon a couple of weeks ago, Michele Benson Huck was driving down Broad Place near St. Rita Catholic School in Uptown New Orleans. The flashing lights indicating she was in a school zone were malfunctioning — again — but she slowed down anyway.
The driver behind her responded by honking and trying to pass. Drivers routinely speed through the area during school hours, Huck said. “I just think it’s a matter of time before someone is critically injured or killed because people are in such a rush,” she said.
Like the one on Broad, many of the flashing school-zone signs in the city don’t work properly.
They’re supposed to flash from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. and from 2:45 p.m. to 4:45 p.m. on school days. City code requires drivers to slow to 20 mph during those times, even if the signs aren’t working.
The Lens surveyed all of the flashing beacons on the city’s official list on Jan. 7 and 8. Sixty percent of those that could be found in active school zones — or 87 out of 147 — were malfunctioning. No lights were found at another 26 locations on the list.
The city, which is responsible for maintaining the systems, blames the solar panels atop the light poles that power the flashing lights. But according to the manufacturer, the problem may be more elementary: dead batteries and improper installation.
A couple of weeks after the Lens notified the city of its findings, many had been fixed, but 57 light systems remained out of order.
City Hall spokesman Brad Howard said the city had been working to replace bulbs, reprogram the lights and fix the circuitry.
Even with the repairs made in the past few weeks, there’s more work to do. Some beacons flash when school isn’t in session, and others flash at the wrong time of day.
At 1 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 20, the lights in the 2100 block of Louisiana Avenue were flashing. That was almost two hours before they were supposed to warn drivers to slow down as they approached Holy Ghost Catholic School.
In locations where the lights are connected to traffic cameras, drivers who exceed 20 mph during the posted times aren’t ticketed if the beacons aren’t working, according to the city.
Lt. Col. Mark Jernigan, the city’s public works director, said in a statement that city law doesn’t require flashing lights in school zones, but “they were added as an extra safety precaution.”
He also said the beacons are solar powered and “may not operate during persistent overcast conditions.” The city’s bid specifications, however, said the system’s batteries are supposed to operate for a month without being recharged by the sun.
The solar panels are made by Carmanah, a Canadian company that specializes in solar-powered traffic systems.
The company’s user manual recommends that its solar panels face the equator to catch the most sunlight. But several beacons with solar panels don’t face south, and some even point north. Others are shaded by trees and installed under overpasses.
“Full solar exposure is critical,” the manual reads. “Shading even a small portion of the solar panel will significantly reduce its ability to charge the battery bank.”
Another problem appears to be old batteries. Many of the malfunctioning school-zone signs around the city blink quickly in unison, barely visible to drivers — the manufacturer’s signal for a low battery.
The city used $1.3 million in Federal Emergency Management Agency hurricane recovery money to install the flashing signs in 2008. The batteries were supposed to last five to seven years, and the contractor, Jack B. Harper Electrical, was on the hook to maintain the lights through 2011.
Now the city is responsible for maintenance. This year and last, the city has budgeted for three technicians to attend to the school lights and traffic signals. Depending on what needs to be fixed, either the city or the contractor handles it, Howard said.
Adding to the confusion, many schools never reopened after Hurricane Katrina, but the old school-zone signs are still there. In the years since, schools have opened in temporary locations and then moved to permanent homes. Many of the flashing lights remain, but they don’t work.
Last year, Harriet Tubman Charter School moved eight blocks down Gen. Meyer Avenue, a major thoroughfare on the West Bank. While a flashing light remains at the old location, there are none at the new campus, located at the former site of O. Perry Walker High School.
“People really speed down Gen. Meyer,” Tubman Principal Julie Lause said, “and we’ve definitely had some close calls.”
Over the summer, the school asked the city to install beacons in front of its new home. But city officials said they have no intention of installing additional systems right now, noting that there is a traffic light with a pedestrian crossing at an intersection in front of the school.
The following Lens staffers contributed to this story: Steve Beatty, Karen Gadbois, Abe Handler, Charles Maldonado, Bob Marshall, Steve Myers and Tom Thoren.