Bills deal with traffic cameras

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 26, 2009

BATON ROUGE (AP) — As more motorists complain about traffic tickets in their mailboxes, Louisiana lawmakers are considering ways to regulate or prohibit automated cameras that snap photos of moving violations.

Baton Rouge, New Orleans and other local governments have the traffic cameras designed to take photos of motorists as they run red lights. City officials have argued the machines improve safety — their presence makes motorists wary and so reduces the number of running-through-red-light violations. The cameras also raise millions of dollars for city governments, and for parishes such as Jefferson, which received $11 million on nearly 144,000 tickets, as of late 2008.

Lawmakers say there’s growing suspicion the cameras are a new way for local governments to raise cash. Rep. Cedric Richmond said he believes the cameras are unconstitutional, and found studies showing they might cause traffic accidents — when motorists slam on their brakes to avoid being photographed.

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‘‘The truth is, these cameras are just a money grab by the cities,’’ said Richmond, D-New Orleans.

State law currently says little about the cameras, aside from a provision that convictions resulting from the snapshots cannot be a part of a motorist’s driving record.

Richmond and Rep. Jeff Arnold, D-New Orleans, are sponsoring a bill that would prohibit them. Existing camera systems would have to be unplugged by January, according to the bill.

If the measure becomes law, Louisiana would join four other states with prohibitions on the cameras: Nevada, New Hampshire, West Virginia and Wisconsin, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The House Transportation Committee will consider the bill after the legislative session starts on Monday.

Rep. Eddie Lambert takes another approach. His bill would make it less profitable for cities and parishes to have the camera systems installed. Under Lambert’s bill, 50 percent of the revenue from such traffic tickets would go to the state, to be spent on highway improvements. The bill also sets a $150 maximum for tickets generated by the red-light cameras.

‘‘The question is going to be whether they think it’s going to be economically feasible to use these red light cameras,’’ said Lambert, R-Gonzales.

Cities and other governments already give part of the proceeds to the companies that install the cameras, typically between 30 percent and 40 percent. So Lambert’s bill could mean Baton Rouge gets only 15 percent of the ticket money, because it pays its contractor 35 percent of each $117 ticket.

Like Richmond, Lambert questioned whether governments are installing the cameras to improve safety or to raise cash. Lambert has long advocated more state spending on highways, and said the state should get a cut of the camera revenue to improve Louisiana’s highways.

‘‘If the whole point of the cameras is safety, then send the money to highway projects to improve highway safety,’’ he said.

Richard Pettis of Metairie is one motorist who doubts the value of the cameras. He was caught making an illegal right turn on a red light at a New Orleans intersection in December 2008. The next month, he got a $130 ticket in his mailbox, along with photographic proof of his alleged misdeed.

Pettis, who disputes the charge, didn’t pay it — but didn’t challenge the ticket in court, either. So he also got a $75 late payment fee, which he hasn’t paid. He heard about litigation over the cameras’ constitutionality, and hopes the ticket will just go away, he said.

‘‘I’m just waiting to see what comes out of it,’’ Pettis said. ‘‘Times are tough right now. I don’t really have that kind of money to give up.’’

On the Net:

House Bills 254 and 480 are at