The city is in the midst of a major expansion of its traffic camera program, but it has little information on the cameras' effectiveness. Credit: Charles Maldonado / The Lens

New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell and her top deputy, Chief Administrative Officer Gilbert Montaño, went before the City Council’s budget committee on Monday morning to defend the administration’s decision not to inform the public that it was lowering speed thresholds for traffic camera tickets.

Cantrell said she made the decision with safety in mind, not to increase ticket revenues. But, Montaño later admitted, her administration has yet to perform a safety study on the program. And a council analysis showed that injuries from crashes in school zones — where most of the city’s traffic cameras are located — are extremely rare, and have actually increased since 2017, when the city added dozens of new cameras.

“I didn’t disclose that because I am not advocating for people to continue to not follow the school zone laws throughout the city of New Orleans,” Cantrell said. “I will not in any way apologize for that.”

The speed limit in school zones during school hours is 20 mph, but since 2012, drivers haven’t received tickets unless they went at least 26 mph. Outside of school zones, drivers were allowed to go 10 mph over the speed limit. But this month, revealed that the speeding threshold in school zones traffic cameras had been lowered to 24 mph since Feb. 4. For non-school zone cameras, drivers now only have an 8 mph cushion.

That change wasn’t announced by the city in advance, though city officials and the city’s traffic camera contractor recommended a public relations campaign to inform residents that they should slow down, The Advocate reported. Deciding not to make the change public has prompted critics to accuse the city of trying to boost the number of tickets issued.

In the two months following the change, 41,000 drivers received tickets for going 24 or 25 mph in school zones, totaling about $1.1 million in expected payments to the city, Montaño said.

The recent news has placed the administration in an awkward position, given Cantrell’s record on the issue. As a council member, Cantrell criticized the traffic camera program, saying the tickets “unfairly burden” New Orleanians. Scaling back the program was a key part of her platform during her successful mayoral run in 2017.

At Monday’s meeting, council members remained skeptical over whether the move is truly about safety, or whether it was an attempt to raise revenue. Earlier this year, the city deactivated 20 non-school zone cameras. The city was expected to lose $4 million in revenue this year because of the removals.

“If this is all about public safety, probably the best way to have drivers slow down is to let them know in advance that the traffic cameras are going to be recalibrated,” said Councilwoman Helena Moreno. “Why would you not tell the public then, so they could drive slower and school zones would be safer?”

“I serve at the pleasure of the mayor,” Montaño said.

Prior to implementing the change, the Cantrell administration conducted a revenue study that showed that the lower threshold would generate between $5.5 million and $7.5 million a year. Without the change, the cameras were already expected to bring in $25 million this year.

When Moreno asked whether the administration had conducted a safety study to match the revenue analysis, Montaño repeatedly said yes. But when pressed, he said he was referring to national studies and a 2017 local study done under former Mayor Mitch Landrieu. That study, the first the city had ever conducted nearly a decade after bringing traffic cameras online, found that 59 camera sites had 21 percent fewer crashes than would have been expected without them.

Prior to that, the city had never researched the program’s impacts on safety, as The Lens reported earlier that year.

When the Landrieu administration study was released in August 2017, Cantrell remained unconvinced, and said the study needed to be even more in depth.

After Montaño admitted to the absence of an updated safety study, Moreno brought forward Jeff Asher, a crime analyst contracted by the council, to present a preliminary analysis he conducted on the safety effect of school zone traffic cameras.

Accidents in school zones during school hours are rare, with only 126 since 2016, Asher reported. Accidents where anyone, whether child or adult, is injured in a school zone during school hours are even less common, according to Asher’s assessment.

The city added 39 new traffic cameras from June to September 2017. Using that as a benchmark, Asher found that injuries from car accidents in school zones during school hours had actually increased by 52.5 percent. From January 2016 through May 2017, there were 9 accidents with an injury. From from Oct. 1 2017 to April 18, 2019, that number increased to 15.

He added that overall, there hasn’t been a fatality in a school zone during school zone hours since at least 2014.

This story was produced in partnership with WWNO-FM.

Michael Isaac Stein

Michael Isaac Stein covers New Orleans' cultural economy and local government for The Lens. Before joining the staff, he freelanced for The Lens as well as The Intercept, CityLab, The New Republic, and...