Traffic cameras have one purpose: to bring in more money

Suffolk County asked state legislators for permission to Suffolk County asked state legislators for permission to install speed cameras in dozens of school zones -- a program that supporters said would increase safety for children and raise an estimated $6.8 million a year for the county. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Xerox

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Joye Brown Newsday columnist Joye Brown

Joye Brown has been a columnist for Newsday since 2006. She joined the newspaper in 1983 and has ...

A couple of Suffolk County lawmakers were honest enough this week to acknowledge the obvious: The red-light and proposed school speed camera programs mostly are about raising revenues.

If Long Island officials really are concerned about more than that, they would roll out the programs in a more comprehensive manner -- making the region safer by educating drivers rather than confusing them.

Right now, for example, red-light camera warnings are posted at some intersections, while at others -- especially in Nassau -- there are none.

At some major Suffolk intersections cameras flash with stunning brightness, while at some in Nassau -- at Woodbury Road and Route 25, for instance -- there's no flash at all.

The first red-light cameras were installed in Nassau in 2009, and in Suffolk a year later. Since then -- using the large number of complaints readers have made to Judy Cartwright, Newsday's Community Watchdog, as a guide -- Long Islanders have expressed concerns about:

Tickets for rolling stops before turning right on red.

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Tickets for stopping on or over the thick, white stop lines -- violations that police officers usually don't bother with.

Tickets for coming to a stop for less than 3 to 5 seconds. According to Cartwright's reporting, state vehicle and traffic law has no time limit, which means vehicles only have to come to a complete stop.

The first report on Nassau's red-light cameras in 2010 -- as mandated annually by state legislation that created the pilot program -- highlighted a couple of other potentially dangerous issues.

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There are drivers who, apparently fearing a camera-generated ticket, brake when lights turn yellow -- only to be rear-ended by the driver behind them.

And as one firefighter complained to Cartwright, there also are motorists who, fearing tickets, refuse to move through intersections -- even when emergency vehicles are trying to get by.

Yet, not one lawmaker in either county asked about such concerns before recently approving home rule messages asking Albany for permission to add even more traffic cameras -- this time, speed cameras that would go in school zones.

Lawmakers also asked little about deals with vendors who operate the programs. They would receive a significant piece of the revenue, on top of equipment rental and other fees.

Earlier this month, American Traffic Solutions -- Nassau's likely speed camera vendor and current red-light camera program operator, and one of the largest traffic camera operators in the nation -- agreed to an amended settlement in a New Jersey class-action lawsuit that could end up refunding a portion of fines.

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In January, a Queens woman filed a class-action lawsuit against the company and Nassau's traffic and parking violations agency over a red-light camera ticket she received in Lake Success. The suit alleges that the timing between traffic signals and red light cameras does not conform with federal standards. American Traffic Solutions has moved to dismiss the suit.

In Suffolk, an official told lawmakers that an agreement with the county's red-light camera vendor, Xerox, could be extended to cover speed cameras.

Xerox was the subject of a series of stories in the Baltimore Sun in 2012. After the stories ran, the company said it had detected a 5.2 percent error rate at five cameras, and it took them off line weeks before the firm's contract expired, the Sun reported.

Yes, Nassau and Suffolk have budget holes to fill. And, yes, Long Island has traffic safety issues. But are cameras the answer?

Residents can't know, unless elected officials begin asking the right questions.

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