Sunday, September 18, 2016
By David Skolnick
Though Youngstown police say use of cameras has slowed down highway traffic, officers issued more civil speeding citations in the past three months than at any other time since the program’s inception.
Officers cited 1,494 people for speeding in June, 1,557 in July and 1,461 in August, according to statistics from the police department.
Since the department implemented the program Aug. 18, 2015, the only month to exceed those three was September 2015, the first full month of the cameras’ use. In that month, 1,593 motorists were cited.
People weren’t used to the speed cameras then, said Lt. William Ross, head of the city police department’s traffic unit, which operates the speed-camera program.
The city issued warnings for about a month before the cameras went into official use Aug. 18 of last year.
After September 2015, the number of citations dropped before spiking during the past three months.
“When we started last year, we had four to five officers” using the city’s speed cameras, Ross said. “I have over a dozen now. We have more officers training running different shifts. We have more officers out there.”
The department has three speed cameras, the same number it had a year ago, but typically doesn’t use more than two, said Police Chief Robin Lees.
The numbers dropped in winter because of weather conditions, Ross said.
The amount of time officers use the equipment decreases then because accurate readings are best obtained outside or in police vehicles with the window down, Ross said.
“In the winter because of the road conditions, people aren’t driving as fast, or at least I’d hope you’re not driving 70 mph on snow-covered roads,” he added.
Between Aug. 18, 2015, and this past Aug. 31, Youngstown police issued 14,379 citations with 9,122 people paying the civil fines. The penalties range from $100 to $150 depending on the speed.
The department’s collection rate is 63.4 percent, which Lees said is about what he expected for collections. As of Aug. 31, the city had received about $569,000 from those paying the citations, Lees said.
The city keeps 65 percent of the fees, with Optotraffic, the Maryland company that provided the speed cameras and processes and mails the citations, keeping 35 percent. That’s about $307,000 of the $876,000 total paid by people in civil fees for speeding in the city.
Under the program, police officers use the speed cameras to issue civil citations rather than stop speeders to issue moving violations with a fine and points on their driving records.
Officers are able to issue significantly more civil citations using this method, Lees and Ross said. The speed citations do not add points to their driving records, they say.
More citations are being issued, but fewer are being given to those going significantly faster than posted speed limits, Ross said.
Between Aug. 18, 2015, and this past Aug. 18, Ross said police issued 35 percent fewer citations to those exceeding the speed limit by at least 21 mph.
“People are speeding, but they are slowing down,” Ross said. “Without a doubt, it’s made the roads safer.”
Lees added: “The extreme speeds are down, and the violators we get are not as high. It’s more citations, but it’s at lesser speeds.”
The cameras are used in school zones and on highways, particularly Interstate 680 between South Avenue and Meridian Road, where the speed limit is 50 mph.
Police go to areas where there are complaints about speeding, Ross said. Lately, he said, that’s been St. Christine School at 3125 S. Schenley Ave.
Responding to contentions by those cited and others that the speed cameras are nothing more than a money grab, Lees said, “Is there revenue that comes in? Sure, and I’m interested in that, and we put the money into police vehicles and equipment. It’s attractive from the revenue aspect, but you can’t argue with the results of slowing traffic down on highways.”
Of the $569,000 collected from the citation fees, the police department spent about $190,000 from them to buy a prisoner-transportation vehicle, two vehicles for police dog units and for a computer program that helps map traffic accidents, Lees said.
The department also will spend about $215,000 to purchase five patrol cars, which also includes computers, lights, sirens and other equipment, Lees said.
The department plans to use speeding fees within a year to upgrade its computer crime-reporting system, he said. He estimated the cost between $250,000 and $500,000.
Police also are looking to use some of the money to buy flashing yellow lights and signs for school zones, Lees said.
“We’re determining the need for that now,” he said.
Speeders face civil penalties of $100 for driving up to 12 mph over the speed limit, $125 for 14 to 19 mph over the limit, and $150 for those driving at least 20 mph over the limit.
Citations are given only to motorists caught on cameras going at least 12 mph over the limit on highways, except in construction zones where it declines to at least 10 mph over the limit.
In school zones, citations are issued to those driving at least 10 mph over the limit.