Cover Story

Lights! Camera! Action!

The Durel administration took a beating for its electronic enforcement program, but the numbers say it’s working to make Lafayette’s streets safer. Joey Durel has a theory about those who take issue with the SafeLight and SafeSpeed programs, where cameras mounted at specified intersections and vans at undisclosed locations record driving indiscretions. People just don’t like getting caught. The city-parish president doesn’t buy the argument — raised in an ongoing lawsuit aimed at shutting down the program — that people are in opposition on the grounds it violates their due process and First Amendment rights.

Sticking to his guns on this issue has been anything but easy, with Durel and his transportation chief enduring extreme criticism and personal attacks — most of which were incited by KVOL-AM radio personality Todd Elliott and the private eye-turned radio host Stephanie Ware.

“What made the issue taxing was that small group of people who made it personal,” says Durel. “They were the same ones who always showed up at council meetings; they weren’t professional, and I don’t think they were sincere.”

What’s more, it’s undeniable the system is working to make Lafayette’s roads safer for everyone. The two vans hit the streets in September 2007, followed by the red light cameras in February 2008. With more than a year’s worth of data now available, an analysis reveals that crashes at designated camera intersections are down almost 68 percent through February of this year, falling from 96 crashes to 31 (within 100 feet of the intersections), and accidents have fallen at other intersections as well — perhaps because of the “halo effect,” where drivers think a camera exists.

It’s clearly catching more violators. In 2007, before the cameras went up and the only tickets written came from the Lafayette police, there were about 3,500 citations for red light-running and speeding issued. Through February of this year, the electronic enforcement accounted for 114,748 civil notices for speeding by the vans and red-light cameras and 5,732 red light running violations. The notices are sent to the registered owner of the vehicle, along with images of the vehicle and license plate and, if it can be captured, the driver.

The programs are sometimes referred to by the general public as Redflex, the name of the Australian-based company that installs, operates and maintains the cameras. At the moment, the system uses two mobile speed vans and fixed cameras at 11 Lafayette intersections with three under construction. If everything goes as planned, there will eventually be 29 intersections covered out of the 185 traffic lights within city limits.

Traffic and Transportation Director Tony Tramel researched electronic speed enforcement for a decade before Redflex entered the picture.

Photo by Robin May

“It costs us nothing; that’s the beauty of it,” says Durel. “The company that you end up going with spends millions of dollars to install the cameras, collects the money and pays the city a percentage.” Local government collected $1.9 million since the program’s inception, about 53 percent of the $3.6 million in citations issued; the vendor pocketed $1.7 million. LCG’s percentage take is based on a sliding scale. For example, LCG gets 38 percent of the civil violation issued to someone traveling 5 to 10 mph over the speed limit but collects as much as 80 percent for those with a real heavy lead foot.

The vendor is in charge of all collections, including delinquencies, and about 81 percent of the total dollar value of notices issued have been paid. LCG receives 100 percent of the late fee assessments.

“The money we get won’t build a bunch of roads,” says Durel. “But [it] will help us with intersection improvement, striping and things like that. One of the things I do like about it is that all of the money has to go to traffic improvement and traffic safety issues. It can’t go to the general fund for raises, and it can’t go to [other] departments.”

“Our motivation has always been about changing driver behavior,” says Tony Tramel, LCG’s traffic and transportation chief. “In most statistical analyses, you need three years’ worth of data to get a proper indicator. So for the first year, we have what we call a trend analysis.”

The reduction is common in many other cities across the country that have begun using electronic enforcement, and it’s a statistic that even the most ardent opponents to the program will have a difficult time deriding. The Federal Highway Administration stated that red light-running in 2003 was attributable to about 206,000 annual crashes, 176,000 injuries and 934 deaths. In addition, the crashes resulting from red light running tend to be more severe because the vehicles usually collide at right angles. Those type collisions are significantly down, according to Tramel, who actually began research on the subject 10 years ago.

“The technology started even before our administration,” says Durel. “And just so people understand, Tony was doing his job. It was a council initiative, which directed him to look into red-light [running] cameras only. After we got in office, three councilmen attended a National League of Cities conference in Reno, Nev., and told us that speeding violations could be done now. So the council directed Tony to look into that — and the vans — as well.

“Well, Tony is meticulous; it’s just his nature as an engineer. So we did the research, attended to the legal matters and the council voted on it, and it became law.”

Speed vans typically monitor neighborhoods based on requests from residents.

Photo by Robin May

There are at least seven vendors of electronic enforcement systems operating in the U.S. with Redflex the most successful to date with more than 50 percent of the domestic red light and speed contracts. Redflex was one of four vendors that submitted bids to Lafayette.

“We didn’t have to do this, but we chose retired police officers to examine every one of the citations,” says Durel. “I suspect there are an awful lot of citations that get thrown out, mainly because it’s a very conservative program. If, say, there are two vehicles in the picture, and there’s any question at all about which car deserves the citation, then it’s just tossed out.”

“If we had police officers at the 29 locations, we’d need 87 officers per day working 24-7,” contends Tramel. “Multiply that times man-hours times 365 days per year and you’ll come up with about $5 million worth of officers to do the same thing these cameras are doing at no expense to us.”

Of course, some people don’t much care about that. They claim they want their tickets handed out by a trained policeman. Perhaps they think they can talk a cop out of it or even get the ticket “taken care of.” But Tramel says during the last 15 months, citations have been issued to federal judges, councilmen, police officers, lawyers and city employees, and nobody’s had one fixed yet. “They can say, yes, that’s me and pay the fine,” says Tramel. “They can say they’re not responsible and adjudicate the citation’s issuance. Or they can prove that their vehicle or plate was stolen, and we’ve had that happen.

“We’ve got one [stolen] car that’s shown up four or five times speeding, and we’ve got a great picture of the guy driving. Don’t know who he is, but we’ve got a great picture of him.”

SafeSpeed also got a great picture of the guy who rammed one of the vans into a ditch last month. Apparently less than thrilled when the strobe light flashed, indicating he was speeding on Ambassador Caffery, 42-year-old Douglas A. Begnaud of Scott allegedly got out of his truck and accosted the van’s driver, who ran for help. Then, police say, the guy got back in his truck and hammered the van often enough to put it in the ditch.

Most drivers don’t go to that extreme to show their displeasure over the system. In reality, the two speed vans accounted for just 14 percent of the speeding violations issued by the program through February 2009. But the vans are certainly the most visible of the two programs’ targets, which is actually their intent.

“The primary purpose of the speed vans is to deal with neighborhoods,” says Tramel. “They’re deployed by the police department based upon complaints and are very highly demanded by citizens. Some days they’ll sit for 10 hours and catch two people. We can’t put a van every place they need to go, but the randomness of the issue just makes them more effective. The public talks about them and that’s a good thing because if you’re trying to change a dangerous driver behavior, the more people who understand what’s going on, the better.”

Photo by Robin May

Then again, there are those who, despite the myriad national and local statistics of fewer crashes at red-light intersections, are convinced that in this case, the end doesn’t justify the means.

Mississippi has just passed a statewide ban on cameras that catch red-light runners, mandating that cities using the cameras take them down by Oct. 1. “Supporters say the cameras reduce accidents and generate revenue for cities,” the Clarion-Ledger wrote in a March 24 story. “Opponents say cameras unfairly target drivers and send too much revenue back to the companies operating the devices.”

Jackson, Columbus and Natchez have multi-million-dollar signed agreements with companies, a matter of contract law that will likely be decided by the courts, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour told the paper. Even as he signed the ban into law, Barbour was questioning the constitutionality of the new law.

Wisconsin and West Virginia don’t like electronic enforcement either; it’s banned in those states. Utah has limited the system to low-speed roads, while Nevada and Arkansas will use it only if there’s a police officer present.

At least one segment of the Lafayette population would like to see this community follow suit. Ask why and they have a hard time explaining their position.

“I don’t trust Tony Tramel or the administration with their statistical data,” claims Stephanie Ware, a private investigator who got a gig on KVOL-AM after she became involved in the anti-Redflex movement. “They released the results of some poll they took, and there were only a couple hundred people surveyed, and everybody was supposed to say, ‘How wonderful.’ The camera is trying to do the job of a trained police officer, and I think there are a lot of officers who don’t like this program.

“The government should be held accountable because the system from the beginning was flawed,” she continues. “I think both the administration and council overstepped their bounds.”

Ware certainly isn’t the only one who dislikes and mistrusts the electronic enforcement program. Its biggest detractor has been another radio personality, Todd Elliott.

“I still think [Redflex] violates our constitutional rights,” says Elliott. “And I didn’t like it that Redflex was a foreign company. Tramel wants to be a policeman, but he’s just a bureaucrat and not a very good one.

“Why won’t they admit it’s all about the money? They always have their hand out, and this just looks like another tax under the guise of safety. Even Acadian Ambulance makes money off the tragedies. When people run lights, it’s good for business,” says Elliott.

Ware and Elliott were fired within a week of each other near the beginning of February 2009.

“I don’t want to say the Durel administration had anything to do with [the firing], but if they can get to Rush [Limbaugh], why can’t they get to me?”

Charles Sagona, general manager for the Pittman Broadcasting station, says nobody got to anybody.

“Nobody from the administration ever contacted the station,” says Sagona. “We actually liked what [Elliott and Ware] were doing,” he adds. “Businesses in Lafayette just weren’t supporting the [radio] programs, and therefore Todd and Stephanie were subject to budget cuts. ”

Others, including Durel, didn’t like what Elliott and Ware were doing at all. “[Elliott] forgot his mission, which was to make his employer profitable,” Durel says, echoing Sagona’s position that Elliott’s and Ware’s dismissals were more about business than the traffic safety programs. “They didn’t register [in the ratings.] They never made the book.”

Durel views the heat he took over the issue as one of the darkest points of his tenure and says at one time the small group’s antics even had him reconsidering seeking a second term. “That was also a time when blogs were still fairly new and while we’re out there very publicly, they’re using silly little names, don’t have to verify anything they write, and as far as I’m concerned, they’re cowards. If you have to put your [real] name to it, your mama can read it and your business associates can read it.”

At one point Elliott’s posse posted an image of Durel on a vehicle and offered to have people come by with a sledgehammer. Once he stopped reading the anonymous blogs — and convinced his wife to do the same — Durel overcame the criticism, just as the results of the programs were beginning to crystallize.

But not before Ware and others had launched an ongoing legal battle over the issue, charging that electronic enforcement was unconstitutional. That claim has been made many times in other states but has yet to be upheld. “Minnesota had a case where there was a conflict between their ordinance and state constitution,” says Durel. “But before there was a final ruling, the people here dropped it and re-filed in state court. It’s legal, and several hundred cities have found that it’s legal.” Attorneys for the city are convinced that Lafayette’s Home Rule Charter gave it the right to enact the ordinance.

To many drivers, Redflex is Big Brother.

“My attitude was that it isn’t Big Brother [watching], it’s Little Sister,” argues Durel. “It’s a private company, not a government organization.  You don’t like Redflex, then put them out of business, that’s fine with me. But if we didn’t have a problem, there would be no need for a solution.

“If it’s ever proven to be unconstitutional, that’s okay with me,” continues Durel. “It will just go away.”

But unless the council has an abrupt change of heart, Redflex, SafeLight and SafeSpeed aren’t going anywhere and neither is that $2 million windfall.

While the stats do seem to indicate the program is changing drivers’ bad behavior, some drivers still haven’t changed their habits at all. Multiple offenders are common, with one lady accounting for 38 speeding violations since the program’s inception last year (see related sidebar). Others try to beat the system through gadgets like PhotoBlock, an aerosol spray applied to a license plate that’s supposed to reflect the electronic flash back on the camera’s lens thereby rendering the photograph unreadable. It’s worth noting that the product does not come with a guarantee offering to pay your ticket if it doesn’t work.

Drivers always slow down whenever they see a cop, even if they aren’t speeding. Now local drivers slow down whenever they see a white van parked on the side of the road, too, and they tend to pay more attention at stop lights.

“When you get your picture in the mail, you tend to slow down,” says Pat Olson, a Realtor with Stirling Properties since 1989. “I’ve been ticketed, and there wasn’t any doubt as to who it was. I’m not a slow driver. In fact, friends used to flip a coin to see who had to ride with me. But I was on Johnston one day and this red Jeep, one with a couple anti-Redflex bumper stickers on it, takes off like a bat out of hell and just blows right through a yellow light, driving like a crazy person. No wonder they want the cameras gone,” she laughs.

“It works, absolutely,” says Durel. “I asked a friend of mine, who beat up on me over this issue for a while, why he had never complained about cameras in banks, department stores and convenience stores invading his privacy. He said, ‘Joey, I don’t steal, but I speed.’ And that’s what it’s really all about.”

Some people just never learn.

Via a public records request, The Independent Weekly obtained a list of the top 25 SafeLight and SafeSpeed offenders from December 2007 to March 10, 2009. But don’t worry; you’re not likely on here. Even if you had 15 tickets last year, you didn’t make the cut. Civil speeding citations start at $25 and go up to $150; they can go as high as $300 in school zones. Red light running is a $125 fine.

This is one serious wall of shame. And there are some hot spots of activity: Of the 114,748 tickets issued by the program through February, 47,848 were from the University/Simcoe intersection, followed by the Johnston Street/Woodvale intersection, which chalked up 25,657 violations.

You just might want to slow down, ’cause you will get caught.

73 Dixie Cab, three units. All but eight had been paid as of March 10.

57 Quality Cab, two units. All have been paid.

36 Samantha Broussard, who was caught 22 times by the light at the intersection of University and Simcoe.

29 Joel Henderson. All but five violations occurred at the University/Simcoe intersection.

29 Michael Fontenot. All but five violations occurred at the University/Simcoe intersection. You guys know each other?

24 Tara Sherrie Hotard, who’s accumulated 15 tickets at the Pinhook/Simcoe intersection, including twice in one day (70 mph and 67 mph in a 40 mph zone).

24 Lauren Loomis — 16 of them were at you-know-where.

24 Arthur Barry III

23 Arthur F. Barry III

1 Jeanne S. Cormier

19 Katherine Vidrine

18 Karmen Michelle Jones

18 Archille T. Martin (2 were Derek Martin)

18 Ralph E. Barnes Jr.

17 Thomas R. Overfelt

17 Gray G. Barker

17 Kefah A. Balbeisi

16 Corey P. Roberts

16 Charles J. Konechne III

16 CEC Inc.

16 Barbara Marcotte

16 Brian F. Grossie

Most people who visit Lafayette usually leave the area with a good taste in their mouths.

Except when it comes to those damn speeding tickets.

Hundreds of complaints about SafeLight and SafeSpeed violations issued since the programs’ inception have made their way to City Hall.

One person who lives in Thibodaux wrote the city to say he wasn’t coming back to Lafayette to shop anymore after he received a SafeSpeed violation. The city’s response? OK.

A visitor from Pennsylvania wrote a detailed letter to Valerie Green, manager of the customer service center of SafeSpeed Lafayette Photo Enforcement, questioning the accuracy and certification of the technology that showed him driving 43 miles per hour in a 35 mph zone. “I recall there was almost no traffic that Sunday morning,” the letter reads. “And I was moving with traffic, as another car as shown in your video was going the same speed [which did not, in the video, look excessive].”

The other car was clocked at 44 mph and also received a violation. Additionally, the author claimed that he had lived in New Iberia for 16 years and had never once received any type of traffic or parking ticket in Lafayette or the entire state, for that matter, and asked that the $25 fine be waived.

It wasn’t.

Approximately 60 percent of violators of the SafeLight and SafeSpeed ordinance don’t have Lafayette addresses. Drivers who live in Carencro (4.7%) and Breaux Bridge (4.7%) are the worst non-Lafayette offenders and are trailed by New Iberia (3.2), Youngsville (2.5) and Opelousas (2.5).