Nassau red light cams: For safety or money?

Police said the driver of a Lexus ran

Police said the driver of a Lexus ran a red light, hit an Audi, and crashed into a tree. (July 16, 2010) Photo Credit: Peter Walden Sr.

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In its first year, Nassau County's red light camera program has brought in more than $10 million from nearly 260,000 violations. That's one violation for every five county residents. In 2010 alone, revenue is expected to top $13 million.

Yet a report to the state aimed at assuring that the cameras have been placed at high-accident intersections, rather than simply high-traffic ones, has yet to be completed, even though it was due June 1. County officials say they delayed the report until they had more data to analyze, and are just beginning now.

Legislation last year allowed Nassau and Suffolk - as well as major cities in the state - to join New York City in using the technology. Programs in Suffolk, Yonkers, Syracuse and Rochester have yet to begin or have just started. Buffalo hasn't decided it wants the cameras.


Started in August 2009

That leaves Nassau, which began using red light cameras last August, as the only jurisdiction with experience with them when the report was due - 10 months' worth. The county has earmarked money from the program solely for social welfare programs.

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Assemb. Charles Lavine (D-Glen Cove) sponsored the legislation, which he said established a five-year demonstration period. He said the reports are needed to make sure the cameras are put at the most dangerous, rather than the busiest, intersections and ensure they're "spread fairly throughout the community."

"The reason for the annual reports is so that there can be some oversight," Lavine said.

Critics of red light camera programs often argue that they have little, if any, impact on road safety and that local governments are increasingly turning to them as convenient cash cows. Anti-camera backlash has led some communities to ban them. Buffalo put its plans to use them on hold while it looks at the experiences of other communities.

Christopher Mistron, a Nassau traffic safety educator who helped develop the county's camera program, said he sought to prevent abuses. For instance, he said, the Arizona company the county partners with is paid for its equipment and services, not the number of violations it helps identify. Mistron said he made sure yellow light times weren't reduced at intersections where cameras have been installed, as has happened elsewhere.

"It's a good program," Mistron said. "I worked hard to make it something my father-in-law wouldn't hate me for."

Mistron said initial meetings were held on producing the report Lavine's law requires. It's supposed to detail the "number, type and severity of accidents," at each intersection with cameras, as well as the disposition of violations at each, along with other information.

Mistron said that by December the county had decided to wait until it had more data from a longer period to examine. At the time, he said, only 20 intersections had cameras - now 32 do and the county is allowed up to 50. Also, it takes several months for violations to cycle through the process.

The legislation calls for analysis of accident data "to the extent the information is maintained" by the Department of Motor Vehicles. Mistron said the DMV can take up to a year to produce the information, so the county decided to collect the data from police. Even then the delay is three months.

Without enough information to review, Mistron said officials decided to hold back on the report, but now have enough data to proceed. He expects a report for 2009 to be ready by the end of September.

Some studies show that red light cameras reduce T-bone crashes, but may cause more rear-end collisions - which are generally less dangerous - as drivers slam their brakes at yellow lights. That's one issue Mistron wants to examine.

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Lavine said that the June deadline was intended to guard against a government making no effort to complete the report, but said he was confident Nassau has acted in good faith to do so. Still, he wants the county to explain to state officials why it hasn't. Lavine said the requirement should be taken seriously.


Opposition is common

"There is no reason why there shouldn't be full reporting compliance next year," he said.

Though the cameras are becoming more prevalent - about 480 jurisdictions in the country use them, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety - there is often opposition, and Nassau is no exception. A retired district court judge is challenging the legality of the program, and some drivers loathe the cameras.

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One reason may be that they are tough to beat. As of Aug. 6, there were 2,298 hearings pending for those who contested violations. Nassau court officials say about 90 percent of camera violations are upheld at hearing, compared with 85 percent of red light violations that originate with a law enforcement officer.

Already, some drivers say they are avoiding the cameras.

"I detour," said Judy Eisman, 65, of Great Neck, who has gotten three red light camera violations, two of them at the same intersection. "I find myself going another way."

Officials have noticed.

"I wish we had the ability to put them on more corners," said Legis. Judy Jacobs (D-Woodbury), who supports the cameras for safety reasons, "because people are starting to learn where they are."

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