Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare acknowledged Tuesday the city made mistakes in rolling out its school-zone speed camera program, but urged lawmakers to avoid repealing the law that allows the controversial cameras.
Testifying before the House Judiciary Committee, Pare said the city is willing to consider several changes to the program, including the hours of operation – currently 6 a.m. until 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday – as well as increasing the amount of signage warning voters about the cameras.
“We need to reset and we’re willing to reset to get this right,” Pare told the committee.
The committee held hearings on four traffic camera-related bills, including a proposal to repeal state laws allowing red light cameras and school-zone speed cameras. Two other bills would establish a graduated penalty system for speed cameras beginning with a warning on the first violation. The other bill would limit the hours when cameras are allowed and set a $35 fine for violations.
Providence has come under from state lawmakers for issuing more than 12,000 $95 speeding tickets during the first 33 days of its speed camera program, which launched in January. A Municipal Court judge ended up dismissing dozens of violations because of errors on the printed tickets.
Pare told the committee the cameras have already resulted in a change of behavior in drivers, pointing to a 75% reduction in violations issued on Mount Pleasant Avenue since the program started.
“Don’t throw out a good program that is going to protect our kids,” Pare said.
Rhode Island lawmakers first approved speed cameras in 2016 when they passed the Automated School-Zone-Speed-Enforcement System Act permitting municipalities to install them within a quarter-mile of any type of school. Providence is the only city has installed the cameras, although Mayor Jorge Elorza has predicted that they will eventually be used across the state.
Rep. Anthony Giarrusso, an East Greenwich Republican, wants to prove Elorza wrong. His bill would repeal all traffic camera laws. He said he believes the state is moving down a “slippery slope” that could lead to even more cameras throughout the state.
“It just doesn’t feel American to me,” he told the committee.
Several Providence Democrats are sponsoring bills that would dramatically change the existing speed camera law. A proposal from Rep. Anastasia Williams would require municipalities to install flashing lights near the cameras while also implementing a tiered penalty system that includes a warning on the first violation, a $45 fine on the second and then a referral to the R.I. Traffic Tribunal on subsequent violations.
“It’s plain and simple, we need to be able to be educated,” Williams said.
A bill sponsored by Rep. Ramon Perez would carry a $35 fine on speed camera violations and limit the hours of operation for the cameras to 6 a.m. until 6 p.m. He pointed to the ability to move the cameras at any time as an example of Providence caring more about revenue than safety.
Rep. Robert Craven, a North Kingstown Democrat, is sponsoring a bill that would require a warning followed by a $50 fine before moving to a $95 fine.
Pare said a gradual penalty system might not be impossible, but it would be a “challenge” for the city’s current vendor, Conduent State and Local Solutions Inc. He noted that Rhode Island has more than 80 different kinds of license plates, which will make it difficult to keep track of violations.
Tuesday’s hearing came as Providence is already facing a federal class-action lawsuit challenging multiple facets of its speed camera. The City Council has already tabled a planned review of the program as a result of the litigation. The city is still issuing violations while the lawsuit is pending.