Speeding tickets — Youngstown's PR nightmare

“We all speed.”

That was a line from an insurance friend this week as I chipped away at what will be the city of Youngstown’s next public relations nightmare. His truism is why it will be such.

Hundreds of us who drive I-680 have speeding tickets awaiting us from the city of Youngstown. We just don’t know it. We will start to know by Friday.

Almost 1,800 speeding violations have been gathered in two-plus weeks of a new city program launched Aug. 15 to slow down traffic on I-680 and state Route 711.

Those first violations will finally hit the mail this week. The infractions will date back to your travels through the city since Aug. 18.

If you are a frequent driver on 680 or 711, you might have three, four ... or even seven ... fines of $100 to $150 each coming your way this week. Your chance to get hit once and learn the new system was not a chance you were afforded.

That’s just one of many concerns I have with the city’s new speed-enforcement effort, which, ironically, I actually support.

Our roads do need to be slowed down in places, and the curvy area of 680 is one such area.

This summer, my son’s vehicle broke down along one of the 680 curves. It was somewhat terrifying sitting there watching three lanes of traffic barreling around the turn and seeing his flashing lights at the last moment.

The tow-truck driver was equally unnerved. The normal 5-minute or so paperwork exchange was cut to 5 seconds. He simply said, “Where do you want it towed? You’ll find it there; give me the key and let’s get the hell out of here.” As he said that, his head peeked over his shoulder almost nonstop watching oncoming traffic. It may have been the fastest tow-truck load I will ever see in my life.

So I agree with slowing down that area of 680.

But the city has gone awry with its implementation – ignoring all history that has made electronic traffic enforcement so contentious across America.

Ohio itself has been a huge battleground. A judge ordered the removal of a village speed camera and had the sheriff confiscate it. Half the town council of Elmwood Place, Ohio, resigned in protest over excessive use of the cameras – grounding government there to a halt because quorum ceased to exist. And the state Legislature enacted a new law just this March to curb abusive local governments acting in a way that Youngstown is now acting.

Given that history, the city is either plain ignorant or grossly arrogant in its actions.

What Youngstown has implemented – automated speeding-ticket cameras that are hand-held by cops – appears to be the first in Ohio, based on Google news searches. It is legal based on the new March law that banned unmanned traffic enforcement. But the Youngstown effort likely violates the intent of the March legislation – which was to make ticketing manual so as to deter mass ticketing, surprise citations weeks later, lame due-process for drivers and greedy cash grabs by local governments.

The judge mentioned earlier called the village’s traffic actions a scam as low as street-level three-card monty.

That is why Youngstown will fail and most certainly get the camera-cautious state officials back to the drawing board.

The breakdown:

The city has written enough speeding tickets on 680 and 711 in three weeks to almost equal all speeding tickets written in the entire city for all of 2013 and 2014 – combined!

The city had a warning plan to alert drivers to the system. For the first 15 days of August, violators were just issued warnings from the automated system. That system failed. I know. I was photographed speeding Aug. 6. But the warning letter arrived at my home Aug. 26 – 12 days after the city fine system ignited.

I was shot doing 63 mph in the 50-mph zone. This standard also will aggravate “violators.”

The 50 mph on 680 might be the Valley’s worst speed cap – maybe second to driving 35 mph on Western Reserve Road.

Yes – the 680 section is notorious. Its curves might make it the most poorly routed interstate stretch in the U.S. (I-40 in the Smokeys; I-77 past Wheeling; then I-680). Add to the curves that there are 27 on- and off-ramps in this limited area, and it is not a section that is safe at 65 mph.

But to mark it at 50 mph is 1960-like. When will Barney Fife pull me over?

This week, knowing I was to tackle this topic, I drove 680 at 50 mph about six times. Sleepy, useless and vulnerable, it felt. I passed no one, and about 1 percent of traffic was with me. Everything else passed me easily. And I probably antagonized 30 percent of the traffic.

The road is 55 mph at least. Even 60 mph can be argued – if officials would dare close a ramp or two in the name of safety.

At 50 mph, it means tickets at 58-63 mph – the present pace of most drivers. That will cause driver rash.

Driver rash is ultimately what will undermine Youngstown’s plan regardless of how stubborn Police Chief Robin Lees remains – as he has been in justifying nearly 2,000 tickets in 15 days.

All the places that had automated tickets were no doubt just as defiant. And many systems came down by pressured council, activist lawyers or more empowered judges and state legislators.

To lose Youngstown’s system outright would be unfortunate. Automated ticketing is a great tool. There are many people on our roads driving 15, 20 and 25 mph over the limit.

But 2,000 tickets, especially to drivers in the 10-15 mph range, is not “serving and protecting.”

It’s ultimately not the ticket volume that sinks agencies, based on all the stories of the government battles. It’s the resulting revenues. At $100 to $150 per incident, it comes off purely as a cash grab – police profit, not police protection.

Citizen ire is enhanced by the reality that the camera manufacturer earns income off each fine as well. Imagine a siren company or Billy Club-maker profiting each time their devices were used.

The conservative guess right now is the city’s first two weeks netted $175,000 based on the $100 minimum ticket. The grab is likely north of $200,000 knowing there are $150 tickets in there, too.

When the first report comes at month’s end – at this pace – expect the first month’s haul to be $400,000. And of that, $132,000 will go to the Maryland camera company. That makes for a great month for it and three of the most expensive cameras and software support known to mankind. Bill Gates should service them for that kind of fee.

And that’s where a good tool will start to lose favor.

It is bullying. And all bullies eventually lose – even if they have badges and great technology.

The city had a chance to do it right, given all the history of this technology, and they failed.

What I would consider better:

Lessen the fines.

Use the camera not for the most speeders but for the worst.

Cap how much the private company earns.

All city funds go to fund the Mill Creek sewer fix.

More city streets get protected. Have you driven Market or Glenwood or Fifth?

In one town, shoppers avoided the stores and restaurants out of fear of the electronic bullying, and the merchants pounced on council to ease up.

Not too impossible to have happen here.

Todd Franko is editor of The Vindicator. He likes emails about stories and our newspaper. Email him at tfranko@vindy.com. He blogs, too, on Vindy.com. Tweet him, too, at @tfranko.

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