An accidental victory

Some petty bickering among New York politicians led to a surprising if accidental victory for drivers. The state legislature refused to renew authorization for most of New York City’s speed cameras.

I’d like to think this followed the Daily News report saying people with money were ignoring camera tickets, which don’t put points on licenses. But politicians already knew cameras were a money scam and the vast majority of media outlets love cameras. Cameras were shut off in retaliation for some unrelated political disagreement.

This happened about a month ago. The city left its equipment running to collect statistics and friendly reporters explained how many potential tickets the city was missing out on. It didn’t work. The legislature is out of session for the year and won’t come back unless leaders negotiate a compromise.

With no sign of the speed camera revenue stream being turned back on, city councilors proposed a way to make more money off of remaining cameras: impound cars that get camera tickets. The bill hits two of the ways to raise revenue from motor vehicle violations aside from direct fines: traffic school fees and impound fees.

Your car’s fifth camera ticket in a year will bring an ultimatum on top of the fine. Pay for traffic school and complete the course within 30 days. Otherwise the city takes your car, charging $185 $20 per day, until you do.

The five ticket threshold is just the bait. It’s in effect for the first year while city officials work out details of the program. After that, anything the Mayor says is related to dangerous driving will be grounds to take your car.

Not your dangerous driving. You could lose your car even if you don’t drive. The owner is the easiest target. Rental car companies excepted, of course. Their lobbyists make them difficult targets.

The lead sponsor of the bill pointed out that some vehicles had over 300 points worth of moving violations, if they had been moving violations. But the whole point of New York City’s cameras is that tickets are not moving violations. City officials made a deliberate choice to raise revenue rather than get lawbreakers off the road.

Even the 21 councilors sponsoring this bill aren’t trying to get bad drivers off the road. Badly driven cars will be charged a fee on top of the fine. It’s another variation on the tax on points. New York already has one at the state level, and also a tax on moving violations and a tax on plea-bargaining a moving violation down to a parking ticket.

The threat of temporary impoundment reminds me of stories about cities that try to ration how many days a car can be on the road. If there’s an even-odd license plate rule people buy two cars, one with an even license plate and one with an odd license plate. Well-off NYC residents can swap the city car and the country car. Or keep the city car in a garage. Impound fees as a revenue source mostly affect drivers who park on the street. As long as the city can’t revoke registration a garage is a safe space.

If we accept the premise that all these speeders are dangerous the solution is obvious. Make camera tickets regular moving violations. Take a picture of the driver and send the ticket to traffic court. Unlike revenue cameras, real ticket cameras don’t need state approval. They have been used out West. But cameras writing real tickets never proved popular in America for two reasons.

One, profit is reduced when you have to give drivers the right to present a defense.

Two, few people really want strict enforcement of the law.

Before cameras New York City police wrote about 100,000 speeding tickets per year. Cameras added another million, and the city wants a lot more cameras than it had. Imagine three million real tickets for moving violations. New York City’s traffic court doesn’t plea bargain like Upstate courts. That’s going to be millions of convictions per year, and maybe a hundred thousand drivers suspended due to too many points. Most of these won’t be street racers. They will be average citizens.

City Councilors want to keep their jobs. Using cameras in America is always a game of trying to keep the pain level safely below “vote the bums out.” Talking tough wins vocal anti-motorist votes. Being tough, taking licenses away from hundreds of thousands of silent voters, is a career-threatening move.

New York City councilors don’t have the guts to actually enforce the law.

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