Speed cameras on track for a comeback in New Mexico

ON THE ROAD AGAIN?: The Santa Fe City Council is considering bringing back unmanned speed cameras.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE, N.M. — A lot of people just don’t like traffic cameras.

Two years ago, a 65-year-old Santa Fe man received the nickname “Speedcam Commando” after he pulled up to a camera set up on Bishop’s Lodge Road, got out of his car clad only in a nightshirt and pulled out a gun, firing five times at the speedcam. He then got back into his vehicle and drove home. It was all caught on tape:

The “Speedcam Commando” ended up making a plea deal and agreed to 18 months probation.

Now, two years after the video went viral, the Santa Fe City Council is on the verge of bringing back the speed cameras.

The city’s Public Safety Committee approved a proposal to sign an agreement with Phoenix-based Redflex Traffic Systems to place three unmanned SUVs equipped with cameras at strategic locations to nab speeders.

The City Council is expected to vote in July on the proposal.

Councilor Ron Trujillo says he’s is in favor of bringing back the cameras, which have idle for the past five months after the city’s contract with Redflex expired.

“I’ve got people who I represent saying, ‘Councilor, I’ve got people speeding through my neighborhood like it’s a raceway,’ ” Trujillo told New Mexico Watchdog. “You put those speed cameras in there and guess what? They call back and say the speeding has gone down dramatically.”

But some Santa Fe residents don’t want the speed cameras back at all.

“Regular traffic enforcement is what works,” retired lawyer Marlene Foster said in a telephone interview. “It’s not really about safety.”

Redflex has made headlines in other locations across the country.

In Chicago, Redflex lost its $100 million contract with the city after allegations surfaced that the company bribed local officials. Six Redflex executives were fired. One said the company handed out gifts and favors to communities in 13 states.

“I’m just appalled” that the city of Santa Fe is considering a new contract with Redflex, Foster said.

“That’s just astonishing to me.”

Redflex was the only company to bid on the Santa Fe contract.

“It’s unfortunate what happened in Chicago and other cities,” said Trujillo. “I personally think that’s outright wrong what they did but Redflex says they’ve gotten to the source of what the problem was … I think they want to be more diligent about what they’re doing but, in my opinion, this program has worked in this community.”

Trujillo says he has not received any gifts or campaign donations from Redflex.

Supporters cite statistics they say show a reduction in traffic mishaps after the cameras are installed. But critics say the surveillance causes rear-end accidents as drivers slam on their brakes when they see the SUVs.

“They say it’s about safety but it truly has nothing to do with safety,” Foster said. “I think you can find studies that show it doesn’t help with that. It has to do with revenue collection.”

According to the Santa Fe New Mexican, the city’s SUVs produced$2.3 million since 2009. Half of revenue derived from the citations goes to the state and the other half is divided between Redflex and the city.

Under the proposal before the City Council, the city will net between $8.50 and $18 per ticket issued.

Drivers caught speeding on the Redflex cameras receive $100 tickets. The citations are not counted on a driver’s record or insurance.

“I know theoretically you can challenge (the ticket) but it’s really difficult,” said Foster. “I know some people who tried to do that without too much success and they just gave up and paid.”

“I wish I could have a police officer 24 hours a day patrolling each street, but that’s not realistic and that’s not going to happen,” Trujillo said. “This is just a tool to aid our police officers … A lot of people hate it. Of course they do. Nobody wants to get a ticket. But the thing about it is, is it OK for you to run a red light or a stop sign just because a police officer is not there?”

Other cities in New Mexico have tried and then rejected traffic surveillance cameras.

In Albuquerque, despite calls from Mayor Richard Berry and other city officials to keep red-light cameras, 53 percent of voters in 2011 voted to get rid of them.

In Las Cruces, red-light cameras were deactivated on March 30 after city officials decided not to renew their contract with Redflex. But $2.9 million in fines are still outstanding, and City Manager Robert Garza said drivers who received tickets are still responsible for them.

“Those that were recorded during the program operation still have outstanding citations, and those who received the citations are expected to pay the associated fine or follow the appeal process outlined with their citation,” Garza told the Las Cruces Sun-News.

Contact Rob Nikolewski at rnikolewski@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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