Judy Cartwright writes the Community Watchdog column
A year ago, Thomas Buttaro was on the receiving end of a red-light camera ticket. And he felt something wasn't right.
Through a series of Freedom of Information requests, he learned that the yellow light at the intersection was shorter than it was supposed to be for a 55 mph road: 3.9 seconds instead of 5.4, an interval the state had set several weeks earlier for 55 mph roads.
He contested the ticket but lost, and now is appealing. And this week he's taking his experience to the Suffolk Legislature, where he plans to speak on behalf of greater transparency in the county's red-light camera program.
To be clear: Buttaro, a New York City firefighter, has nothing against red-light cameras. If they make Long Island intersections safer, he's all in favor.
But he's doing what he can to make sure the traffic signals give drivers enough time to come to a safe stop.
His experience with the program started May 3, 2011, when his car was recorded passing through an intersection on Route 347, a few miles from his home in Port Jefferson Station. That was 41 days after the state Department of Transportation distributed a memo designating yellow signal times for six speed limits. The memo directed staff to "modify as necessary the yellow intervals" and give priority to red-light camera intersections.
Buttaro expected the document -- one of many he obtained through Freedom of Information requests -- to help him fight the ticket. At his October appearance in District Court in Central Islip, he told the hearing officer: "I am ready to argue -- actually question the county on the timing of the yellow light interval of that intersection . . . Is 3.9 seconds valid to stop a motor vehicle on a downgrade at a 55 mile-an-hour zone?"
The prosecutor said the state considered the 3.9 seconds valid. The hearing officer said, "You're guilty. Fifty dollar fine" and told Buttaro he could file an appeal.
As for the scene of the crime: The yellow light on Route 347 at Mark Tree Road was adjusted to 5.4 seconds on May 23, 2011, 20 days after Buttaro's car was cited, according to another state document he received.
Which was 61 days after the state memo was issued. Asked about the time span, state DOT spokeswoman Eileen Peters said: "Although Nassau and Suffolk counties' red light camera locations were given priority treatment (in order to be certain these signals reflected current guidelines since the counties were relying on them), there was no set schedule for adjusting the yellow timing."
She added: "And, quite frankly, responding to the 2,847 traffic signal calls [in 2011] were the traffic signal crews' main priority." The department did not respond to questions about when yellow-signal modifications were completed and how often signals are monitored for accuracy.
Buttaro has an idea about how to achieve such accuracy: He told the county legislature's Public Safety Committee last week that the red-light camera system itself could be used to point out when yellow signals are out of sync: A protocol could be established to kick out a ticket when the yellow-light time recorded on it doesn't correspond to the state-designated time for the intersection.
On Tuesday, he plans to speak at the legislature's public hearing on the addition of 50 more intersections to the county's red-light camera program. Nassau and Suffolk have received state authorization to double the number of intersections to 100 in each county.
He'll encourage program transparency -- signs or countdown clocks, for instance, informing drivers how many seconds a yellow light lasts because "you don't want drivers guessing" -- and putting an emphasis on driver safety.
If drivers are to come to a safe stop, yellow lights must not be shorter than the times set in the state memo, he says, and he uses calculations involving driver perception time, reaction time and braking distance to show why.
The state doesn't have plans for such signs, Peters said, and encouraged all of us to react to yellow lights as a warning, "to slow down to enable a safe stop before the light inevitably turns red."
As for Buttaro's effort: He makes it clear he's not an opponent of red-light cameras: "I'm all for the program if it is run with transparency."
Which he sees as essential. After all, he added, "the driving public is being held accountable."