The school-zone speed cameras showed up without fanfare.
An email that arrived Friday, July 25, was the first indication. The writer asked if we knew a camera was being installed on Lido Boulevard in Long Beach. That, in turn, led to a story by Newsday's Laura Figueroa: Nassau County had begun operating cameras at three schools holding summer sessions.
We asked the county how the program would operate, which led to a Q&A in this space in early August. A Hempstead resident let us know our questions were just the beginning.
"I noticed something in the Saturday article about speed cameras that leaves a loophole," Troy Martinez of Hempstead said in a reference to the county's statement that school hours would be posted on the school-zone speed limit signs.
No such signs were in place at Franklin Elementary School, where a mobile camera unit was already operating.
Martinez was the first -- and far from the last -- to call or write with questions and complaints about the cameras. The most-asked question: Had traffic safety become a problem at schools?
The answer emerged early this month in a story by Newsday's Matt Clark: In the five years leading up to the cameras, no speed-related accidents were reported on school days in three-quarters of the locations the county said it was monitoring. Eight of those locations had no accidents of any kind.
The chapter that began in July concluded last week when the county legislature voted unanimously to end the program it had unanimously approved months earlier. It was time to check back in with Martinez:
"It seems to be a universal sentiment that this wasn't working," he said. "The jig is up. They know they were just doing it for the money."
He had paid close attention to camera locations and managed to avoid getting tickets. And he concedes that one day, as he drove unawares into a school speed zone, he was lucky.
"I knew they had me," he said, so he used a maneuver to try to keep the camera from detecting him: Staying on the far side of a van in the lane between his car and the camera. He thought it unlikely the mobile van camera could detect him because it was not positioned high enough to peer over the taller vehicle.
5 questions about speed cameras
We heard these often:
Why use locations where students are never seen near the roadway -- for example, on the South Service Road of the LIE next to Great Neck High School South?
In this case, the county said the school had asked for the camera.
Why use cameras at times when students weren't arriving or departing?
State law permits camera use throughout the school day, defined as 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Why did it take two weeks for a ticket to arrive, when earlier notice would have changed behavior -- and produced fewer tickets?
The camera images had to be reviewed by the speed camera vendor, American Traffic Solutions, then again by county staff. Law permits tickets to be mailed as late as 14 business days after the event.
Why was it necessary for mobile camera vans to idle during the day?
To recharge the camera batteries.
Had traffic safety problems at schools determined the cameras were needed?
As Newsday's Matt Clark reported recently: No.
We owe thanks to many readers for pointing out the speed camera program's perplexities, and one in particular deserves a mention:
Starting in August, Dennis O'Brien of Syosset would notify us when cameras arrived unaccompanied by signs required by state law. O'Brien is familiar with such laws from his career with the FDNY -- he's a retired lieutenant -- and as a civic association president.
These days he's turning his attention to the flashing yellow lights that the county has promised. The lights were already present at some schools but some had signs sure to confuse:
At North Side School in East Williston, for example, two signs were posted with the 20 mph speed limit: "7 a.m. to 6 p.m. school days" and "When flashing."
The driver was left to guess which one to believe.
The presence of both signs runs counter to state law, which requires one or the other but never both.
On Wednesday, we asked the county about the signs and were told they are the responsibility of towns and villages. .
That came as a surprise to East Williston Village Clerk Marie Hausner. . "We don't put those up. We have nothing to do with those at all," she said, and suggested we contact the county.
We did, and on Thursday the county sent this email: . "We believe the East Williston School District installed it."
On Friday, the facilities manager for the district, Nick Fusco, said the flashing lights had been in place for years with only one sign: "When flashing" and the lights were operated based on a recommendation by Nassau County police -- "only when the crossing guard is out there."
When the speed camera program began, he said, the county added the "7 a.m. to 6 p.m." sign plus one announcing Speed Limit Enforced by Photo/Video.
Those two signs were removed Wednesday, Fusco said, when a county truck showed up. "The County removed all signage related to the video enforcement," spokesman Brian Nevin said in an email, but did not acknowledge if the county or its vendor, American Traffic Solutions, had installed them.
O'Brien is concerned that future installations will continue to be flawed because the installers lack a familiarity with state laws regarding traffic control.
As for the speed camera chapter just ended: He, like Martinez, managed not to get any tickets.
Stunned and hurt
We received many letters from drivers who said they had never before received a ticket -- ever! -- and were stunned that they were now characterized as law breakers. One woman put it this way in a phone call in October:
"I'm 84 years old and live in Syosset, off South Oyster Bay Road. I am continually passing the Catholic church and school [Our Lady of Mercy] in Hicksville . . . I don't go by that fast, and I do take precautions when I see children or a school bus . . . .
"Now I get a notice that I have to pay a fine of $80 . . . I don't think I deserve that, I'm hurt by that. I'm not that kind of a driver, I'm not out to hurt anyone . . . 65 years I'm driving that way and this is what happens? I'm being punished -- for what? There were no students outside. Children are in school by that time, at 10 in the morning."
Others were anguished after they had unwittingly racked up several violations in a short time. This letter arrived early this month from Charles and Juliana Fisher of Massapequa Park:
"The subject of this letter is nine tickets issued to my 2013 Toyota Corolla. They were issued from 9/5/14 to 9/19/14. The first ticket's date of notice was 9/17/14. Why did it take almost two weeks to put the first ticket in the mail?
"I have contested these tickets. I find it very difficult to shell out $720. We are both in our 70s and live on fixed income.
Speed Cam Answer of the Week
Don't expect your pending speed camera ticket to be dismissed.
In case you missed the stories by Newsday's Paul LaRocco and Laura Figueroa last week: After the Nassau County Legislature voted to repeal the speed camera law, Presiding Officer Norma Gonsalves announced that outstanding tickets must be paid. County spokesman Brian Nevin added that no consideration is being given to dismissing pending tickets.
Red light cameras
They're still here, capturing the truly horrific -- drivers who speed through a red light -- as well as the age-old practice of turning right without first coming to a complete stop.
An expensive trip to the movies
Here's an account from Irene Barrett of Huntington Station, who sent us an email earlier this month:
"I wanted to write to you but I thought you would think my story was made up. It's not.
"I'm a 77-year-old widow, living in Huntington Station. I have a very limited income, but I've found some really pleasant, inexpensive ways to pass an afternoon. Every week I would drive into Nassau to visit the Hicksville Multiplex to see a $2 movie, complete with popcorn and soda! These were old, usually black-and-white movies, but I had lots of fun seeing them again.
"I had never had an accident or received a ticket. Then one day, more than a year ago, an envelope arrived from Nassau saying I owed $80 for a ticket! . . . [At a traffic light just north of the multiplex] I stopped, as always, then turned right on the red light. I did not know that you had to stop for something like six seconds (my kids told me) before turning.
"Aside from being very upset, I realized that since another week had passed, I would be getting another ticket because I had gone to the movie again the next Monday. So the Abbott and Costello movie cost me $82. So did the Charlie Chan one.
"I sent the money along with a note stating my circumstances. I guess they had a good laugh at my expense before cashing the check."
Front yard camera
Daniel and Jessica McCarthy found it unsettling a year and a half ago when a red light camera was installed near the edge of their front yard in West Babylon. We noted their concerns at the time: that flashing lights could interrupt the night, even with shades on the windows.
"We all need our sleep," Daniel McCarthy said of the household, which included an infant and a toddler.
Cameras at the intersection, Great East Neck Road at Arnold Avenue, are needed, Suffolk County told us, to reduce the incidence of right-angle accidents.
The county did take steps to address the family's concerns: Three shrubs intended to grow into a buffer were planted and the light was adjusted to restrict the range of its flash.
In 2013 the number of accidents declined, according to the county's recently issued Red Light Camera Program Report -- from five in the year before the cameras arrived to two the next year. Neither of those was a right-angle crash.
The number of tickets issued averaged more than 1,400 a month.
How much longer the cameras will remain hasn't been decided, county spokeswoman Vanessa Baird-Streeter said. Whether removal is possible will be determined when the location undergoes its annual review, she said.
By the numbers
Suffolk County's 2013 report on the red light camera program, released in November, found an increase in only one category of accidents at intersections with cameras: rear-end crashes were up 9.3 percent. A story by Newsday's David Schwartz cited that number and these declines:
5.4 percent decrease in crashes
10.6 percent decrease in crashes with injuries
30 percent decrease in side-impact crashes
Here are some of the report's findings about tickets:
1.6 percent People who ask for court hearings
0.25 percent Cases that result in trial
0.06 percent Cases found not guilty
17,110 The most tickets issued at a location: Route 110 and Conklin Street, Farmingdale
16,903 Runner-up: Ronkonkoma Avenue and the North Service Road of the LIE
And, for anyone who believes a ticket is issued every time a light flashes:
8,114 The average number of vehicle events recorded each day
804 The average number of tickets issued each day