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Clearing the air on red-light cameras

Traffic moves past the sign for the red-light

Traffic moves past the sign for the red-light camera on Old Country Road in Westbury on Aug. 18, 2011. Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

Let's take a moment to tie up some loose ends about those red-light cameras everyone loves to hate.


Last month we told you that a 2011 state directive set new standards for yellow signals on state roads. The result: longer yellows.

All traffic signals on state roads now conform to the memo, according to the state Department of Transportation, so yellow lights at those intersections range from 3.6 seconds (30 mph zone) to 5.4 seconds (55 mph zone). The signals at red-light camera intersections on state roads have met that standard since last June, department spokeswoman Eileen Peters reports.

Suffolk County had asked the state to lengthen the yellow intervals after receiving complaints that they were too short, chief county engineer William Hillman told the county legislature last month.

The 1.5-second differenceWatchdog was curious what impact the longer yellow intervals would have on red-light camera tickets, specifically at the intersection of Route 347 and Mark Tree Road on the border of East Setauket and Centereach. Thomas Buttaro, a Port Jefferson Station resident, is challenging a ticket he received there in the time after the state memo was issued and before the yellow signal was lengthened to 5.4 seconds from 3.9 seconds.

Suffolk County replied to our Freedom of Information request with this information:

From the date of the 2011 memo, March 16, to May 25: 1,770 tickets were issued, an average of 25 a day.

The number fell to 566 for the same span of time starting May 25, or almost eight a day.

Full disclosure: Our request contained a typo -- May 25, instead of May 23, the date the signal was changed -- so the 1,770 includes two days post-signal change. Adjusting for those days, the daily average before the change would have been slightly higher.

The yellow signal change has so far applied only to state roads. But we can expect to see more cameras on roads where the yellow lights are shorter.

That's because both counties are poised to double the number of red-light camera intersections.

In Suffolk, Hillman said, the county's 700-plus signals will meet the same standard eventually. They're being adjusted as they get upgrades.

Nassau County's roads rely on Federal Highway Administration guidelines -- a few tenths of a second shorter in each speed category -- along with county engineers' judgment, according to Michael Martino, spokesman for the county Public Works Department. Those guidelines range from 3.2 seconds (30 mph) to 5 seconds (55 mph), with adjustments for factors such as an uphill or downhill approach.

So don't expect yellow intervals to be identical, even on roads with the same speed limits.

And that takes us to Mark Bender's question about the intersection where Underhill Boulevard meets Jericho Turnpike in Syosset. Bender, of Syosset, who said he and his wife had each received red-light tickets there, noticed that the yellow signal in the right-turn lane is shorter than in the other lanes. That intersection belongs to the state, which says a road with that speed limit (45 mph) needs a 4.7-second yellow. Because the Underhill approach is downhill, a case could be made that the yellow should be longer.

Bender sat in an adjacent parking lot and, using a stopwatch, timed the yellow in the right turn lane at 3.4 seconds, a time he said is insufficient for drivers to stop before the light turns red.

The state agrees with Bender's observations but insists the shorter yellow is appropriate at that location. That's because, Peters said, in the right-turn lane "the turning movement must occur at a much slower speed than traffic traveling through the intersection." Translation: Slower speed gets a shorter yellow.

As for Bender: He said he supports the red-light camera program "if it's fair and saves lives." But in his estimation, this yellow light comes up short.


Keeping tabs on lights

Once a traffic signal has been adjusted, no monitoring is necessary to keep the timing accurate, Peters said. "Once they're set, they're set," she said. "It's not going to run out of juice."

Repairs become necessary when the signals are damaged by weather, traffic accidents or power failures, she said.

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