Revenue from red-light camera tickets in Suffolk County dropped 24 percent in 2012 as motorists became more aware of cameras at dozens of intersections, according to a new report.
Accidents at the intersections involving injuries declined by an average of 10 percent annually compared with the 12-month period before the cameras were installed, the county's 2012 report to the state showed. But rear-end collisions jumped nearly 20 percent a year as drivers hit the brakes to avoid tickets.
Gross revenue was $9.76 million from 208,648 tickets, down from $12.9 million in 2011. About $5.3 million of that went to the private vendor who operates and installed the cameras.
Suffolk's annual report on its Red Light Safety Program, required by the state legislation that authorized the initiative, provides material for both opponents and supporters of the red-light cameras installed at intersections in the county beginning in 2010. Some say the cameras were installed solely to bring in new revenue, while others say they already have cut down on serious accidents.
The report comes as legislatures in Suffolk and Nassau are seeking state approval to expand electronic traffic ticketing to permit new speed cameras in each of the 125 Long Island public school districts. Fines for violating school-zone speed limits would be $50 per ticket, plus Suffolk and Nassau could charge an administrative fee, which hasn't been determined.
The State Legislature returns Monday. It is unclear when speed-camera legislation will come up for a vote.
Suffolk's report, released April 17 at Newsday's request, comes 10 months after the deadline set by the 2009 state legislation that authorized the cameras. Reports are supposed to be released every June. Nassau will complete its 2012 report next week, county spokesman Brian Nevin said. Neither county has released reports for 2013.
Xerox State and Local Solutions, the Maryland-based vendor that operates the program, hired a firm to compile and analyze state accident statistics and write the portion of the report on accident safety used in Suffolk's report, said Paul Margiotta, executive director of Suffolk's Traffic and Parking Violations Agency.
The red-light camera program has drawn complaints from many Long Island motorists about tickets for minor infractions such as slow-rolling right turns on red, and that signage about the cameras' presence is inadequate.
Fines in Suffolk and Nassau are $50, plus a $30 administrative fee, but drivers get no points on their licenses.
But the cameras, which automatically film vehicles and generate mailed tickets, have produced significant revenue streams for Suffolk and Nassau. Both are counties dealing with tight budgets and deficits, while county executives Steve Bellone, of Suffolk, and Edward Mangano, of Nassau, have promised to hold the line on taxes.
Margiotta cited unofficial data showing that net revenue improved last year. While the 2013 report isn't complete, he said Suffolk collected $19.1 million on 294,528 tickets last year as it installed the full complement of 200 cameras at 100 intersections as allowed by state law. About $4.4 million went to Xerox under a new contract extension that gave the county a larger percentage of the revenue. The county also instituted new $30 fees, effective April 1, 2013, that go entirely to the county.
County officials say any revenue from red-light cameras is of secondary importance -- and that the primary reason for them is safety.
Suffolk Public Works Commissioner Gilbert Anderson noted the reduction in injury accidents from side collisions and other types of incidents. "That's the intent -- to eliminate the right-angle T-bones," Anderson said. "With people obeying the law, there's a drop in incidences and a certain drop in revenue."
Fees defended as fair
Anderson defended the fees for Xerox as fair, noting that the company shouldered the $10 million in installation costs. Suffolk is again considering using Xerox if the state approves speed cameras.
Suffolk's report shows the county collected $9,762,721 in fees and fines in 2012 from red-light cameras at 50 intersections, and that 54 percent went to Xerox.
Under its contract with Suffolk, Xerox at the time collected about 58 percent of the ticket revenue and half of $25 late fees. The company paid the upfront costs to install the cameras and also maintains them. The county in November 2012 renegotiated the contract so that Suffolk receives 58 percent of the revenue.
In 2011, Suffolk collected $12,898,408 in fines and fees and paid Xerox $5,998,160, according to that year's report to the state. Xerox declined to comment.
Accidents that involved an injury went from a total of 304 in the year before the cameras were installed at the intersections to an average of 272 per year after they were installed. Rear-end crashes went from 272 to an average of 325. Right-angle crashes dropped from 92 to an average of 66.
Overall, there were 675 accidents at the 50 intersections in the year before cameras were installed, and an average of 664 accidents per year afterward, according to the analysis.
Suffolk's reduction in injury accidents at intersections with red-light cameras -- and the eventual falloff in revenue -- mirrors national trends, said Kristin Nevels, a spokeswoman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., that seeks to reduce traffic deaths.
"If the cameras are working, revenues would decline, because fewer people are getting tickets," she said. "Our research shows cameras are effective in preventing crashes and serious injuries and death."
Anderson said revenue fell in 2012 because drivers became more aware of the program and changed their behavior, but that some cameras have been moved to new locations. Margiotta said the county would not release the locations of the current red-light cameras.
Kevin MacLeod, a solar energy company owner from Bay Shore who has testified at legislative hearings against the cameras, said he suspects red-light tickets went down in 2012 as drivers learned of the monitored intersections and were alerted by their GPS systems. "People are figuring out where they are and are more sensitized to the areas," said MacLeod.
"It's government using the aura of safety for making money," he said.
Richard Eisman, a retired teacher and social worker, said if the red-light cameras save one life, they're worth it, and that if some are malfunctioning they should be fixed, not removed. "This is not justification for getting rid of an obvious safety measure that does work," said Eisman, 71, of Mount Sinai.
Some communities around the nation are moving away from red-light cameras, Bowman said.
"You're seeing a public backlash against the cameras," he said, as residents become aggravated with increased rear-end collisions and become convinced they're more about making money than public safety.
He said other alternatives, such as lengthening the duration of yellow lights, have proved to be more effective in improving safety, but often aren't tried because municipalities want to make money.With Robert Brodsky, Joye Brown, Judy Cartwright
and Joan Gralla