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Drivers paid $7M to controversial speed camera program in Providence

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – On a single day in December 2018, 15 speed cameras in school zones across Providence recorded 1,485 vehicles traveling at least 11 miles per hour faster than the speed limit.

That breaks down to more than two violations per minute during the 11 hours the cameras operate during the day.

Fast forward more than a year, and the city had issued over 100,000 speeding tickets from the cameras in 2019, generating about $4 million in revenue for Providence and its private partner, according to data obtained by Target 12.

During that time, the school-zone speed camera program has been regularly debated, offering a window into what similar discussions might look like in other communities currently considering or implementing the cameras.

Supporters often argue the cameras improve public safety, while opponents criticize them as a thinly veiled way for cash-strapped cities to generate new income.

The opposition can be summed up nicely on Blackstone Boulevard, where someone has graffitied the phrase “$ GRAB” on a speed camera near the Lincoln School.

“The only way we are going to get people’s attention when it comes to speed are consequences,” said Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré, who oversees and supports the program.

The map below shows long-standing cameras (red), removed cameras (black) and new cameras (yellow). Click on the icons to see how many tickets each one has issued.

Target 12 analyzed a breakdown of locations, speeding tickets and warnings from the cameras recorded during 2019, along with aggregate data showing violations, time of day and speeding levels recorded between September 2018 and January 2020.  

The analysis showed that more than 55,000 vehicles have been cited for traveling 31 miles per hour in school zones, the lowest possible speed that triggers the cameras. (The speed limit is 20 miles per hour.) Those cases accounted for 31% of all violations.

And Olney Street drivers are speeding the most: a single speed camera near Hope High School issued 26,536 tickets in 2019.

The fastest speed recorded in Providence was 68 miles per hour, the data shows. “Sixty-eight is really fast through a 20-mile-per-hour zone,” Paré said.

By several measures, the program has worked well as a mechanism to penalize offenders who drive too fast in parts of the city where children and teenagers often walk or gather. And the Providence Police Department reports the program has generated $3.8 million in new money for the city plus $3.1 million for its private vendor, Conduent, since January 2018.

But whether the cameras are working to deter speeding and improve public safety is less clear.

Speeding has clearly declined in some areas of the city, including Douglas Street near Veazie Street Elementary School, where violations and warnings as a percentage of total vehicles declined to 0.63% from 1.3% during 2019. The camera issued 38 tickets in the last week of that year, down from 67 tickets in the first week.

But there are also multiple camera locations where speeding remained consistent and – in some cases – even increased throughout the year.

On Branch Street near E-Cubed Academy, the number of violations and warnings as a percentage of total vehicles increased to 1.2% compared to 0.9% during the first 25 weeks of 2019, according to the data. The camera issued 238 tickets in the last week of the year, compared to 104 tickets in the first week.

Despite the increase, however, the city decided to move the Branch Street camera to a different location where speeding – and the number of violations – was higher.

On the surface, it might make sense to try and place the cameras in places where speeding is more frequent, but Paré admitted there hasn’t been any follow-up done at locations to measure if driving behaviors change after the cameras have been removed.

“We have not done that,” he said.

The Providence Police Department also does not measure whether the speed cameras have affected the number of car crashes in school zones. Paré said the number is already low, which would make it challenging to measure. But he noted a 2015 incident when a driver hit and killed Mount Pleasant High School teacher Anne-Marie Dansicker outside of the school as an example of why speed-reducing efforts are needed.

The lack of review, however, has raised eyebrows among some city officials, playing into a broader concern of whether the program really works.  

“The concerns I have is that at the end of the day, if it becomes about revenue — not safety — then it’s upside down,” Providence Finance Committee Chairman John Igliozzi told Target 12.   

The Finance Committee last week approved an amendment to the existing contract with Conduent, which would result in the company getting a smaller share of the revenue collected from tickets. The amendment – which must be approved by the full City Council – would also authorize the Police Department to install five new cameras, for a total of 20. 

Igliozzi, who supported the contract change, said he’s nonetheless hopeful the program will eventually become so successful that the cameras will no longer be needed in Providence.

“If the program does work, well then, therefore we shouldn’t be giving out any tickets and it should be successful,” he said. “It’s supposed to be deterring that type of behavior and if it isn’t, that means it’s not working, so then we need to take another look at it and see why it is not working.”

Beyond the efficacy of the program, city officials and law enforcement have also raised concerns about whether the program has a fair system of penalizing speedsters.

In September, cameras captured two vehicles speeding within a minute of one another. One was going 68 miles per hour and the other was going 31 miles per hour. Despite the wide gap in speed, both drivers would receive the same penalty under the law: a $50 fine. That amount was set in state law by the General Assembly.

“Is it fair? No,” Paré said. “We’d rather have a higher sanction and penalty for higher speeds.”

The example was presented to Igliozzi, who argued that if a police officer had been there instead of a machine at the time, the officer could have stopped the driver, issued a ticket and filed any additional charges that might come with driving so fast in a school zone.

“He’s still going 68 miles per hour and he’s just getting a ticket in the mail,” Igliozzi said. “It’s great they get a ticket, but no one was there to stop them from speeding at the beginning, and that’s a problem.”

The Finance Committee – while supportive of the amended contract with Conduent – has requested additional information from the police department, and the issue will be discussed again at an upcoming meeting.

The city lawmakers said they want to know what happens to the millions of dollars that come in through the program, which is supposed to go toward traffic-calming measures throughout the city. Igliozzi said he’d like to see additional changes moving forward.

“The speed cameras … don’t stop speeding,” he said. “It just catches you speeding with a picture and sends you a ticket. That’s the problem.”

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Tim White (twhite@wpri.com) is the Target 12 investigative reporter and host of Newsmakers for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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