Judy Cartwright writes the Community Watchdog column
Red-light cameras. The words alone are cause for heartburn.
And Long Island drivers were eager to share their frustrations after an October column about one specific red-light ticket. They called in and wrote accounts of their experiences and questions about the red-light camera programs.
It's safe to say the cameras caught us off guard: We've spent most of our driving lives coming to a "stop" -- slowing to almost-but-not-quite 0 mph -- without getting so much as a warning. Then the cameras showed up in Nassau (2009, 50 intersections) and Suffolk (2010, 50 intersections) -- and, all of a sudden, the ticket was in the mail.
Many drivers told Watchdog they are not opposed to the program: They see it as a useful tool that could lead to safer driving and fewer accidents. Still, others are adamant that the cameras violate their rights to privacy and due process. But each had a story and, typically, a question or two. Here is the first of two reports based on their experiences:
First, some good news:
It turns out you can beat a red-light camera ticket. Elene Contegiacomo of New Hyde Park, with the assistance of her husband, Joseph, did just that.
The ticket she received said her car had not stopped before making a right turn on red from northbound Lakeville Road onto Union Turnpike. (Yes, the same intersection Watchdog featured in October.)
The ticket included three photos: The first, a close-up showing her car's rear license plate; a second showing two cars side by side at the intersection; and a third, in which one of the cars is making a right turn. The Contegiacomos were able to prove that the car making the turn wasn't Elene's. Which wasn't easy, given that the two cars appeared identical.
The couple did so by logging on to DriveSafelyInNassau.com, typing in the violation notice number and PIN provided by Nassau's Red Light Camera Division and viewing a video of the camera images.
They studied stills from the video to compare the two cars, both Honda Accords, and determined that the shapes of the rear windows differed ever so slightly. And they found one more difference: One car -- the one that made the right turn -- had small lights on either side of the rear license plate.
Elene Contegiacomo's car doesn't have such lights.
So they printed a packet of evidence and submitted it to the county's Traffic and Parking Violations Agency and, days later, received notification that the ticket had been dismissed. "We apologize for any inconvenience," the letter said.
"You wonder how many people pay without checking" the video, Elene Contegiacomo said.
So there's a chance a ticket was issued in error. She has the proof.
Several readers expressed concern that, especially on roads with higher speeds and heavy traffic, drivers will get rear-ended if they stop as the yellow light turns red. Is consideration being given to lengthening the yellow light?
It is not. "The timing of the yellow phase of a signal is based on several factors, including the speed of the roadway," Nassau County traffic safety educator Christopher Mistron said. "If a roadway has a posted speed of 55 mph, the timing of the yellow already allows for a safe stop."
In Suffolk, there's also no plan to change. Spokesman Dan Aug said the yellow light "clearance times" meet the Federal Highway Administration's criteria of 3 to 6 seconds, based on prevailing speeds of traffic.
It's only fair to cite numbers in a report that found that, in the first year of the red-light camera program in Nassau, rear-end collisions dropped by 6.6 percent at 40 intersections. (Ten of the 50 intersections were excluded because those cameras had been operating for a comparatively brief time.) But one location -- the junction of Old Country Road and Ring Road, which serves as an entrance to the Roosevelt Field mall -- showed a sharp increase in total accidents, to 91 from 49 the previous year. The county said signs at the turn may have led to driver confusion and rear-end crashes. New signs are now in place that read: "Right on Red After Stop."