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Watchdog: Confusion over school-zone speed cameras hits new high

Cars drive past the speed camera set up

Cars drive past the speed camera set up in front of Dutch Broadway School on Dutch Broadway on Tuesday, September 2, 2014 in Elmont. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Confused by the rollout of Nassau County's new school-zone speed camera program? We're downright flummoxed.

The confusion bar reached a new high last week when a state agency told us school speed limit signs must also announce when school is in session. That statement contradicted what the agency, the state Department of Transportation, told us two weeks earlier.

More about that in a moment.

There's a more pressing question, at least to the many readers who have been asking if cameras will operate during after-school activities; and, if they are, how drivers are supposed to know.

Here's the latest from the county: When we asked last week if cameras would be in action during evening and weekend school activities, we got this: "No, they are operational 7am -- 6pm on school days," according to an emailed statement from Judge John Marks, executive director of the county's Traffic and Parking Violations Agency.

Just to make sure, we asked if cameras would be activated on Saturdays during fall football games. Again, the answer was no.

That's a revision from the plan announced in the summer, which echoed a state law provision that allows use of cameras during student activities, from a half-hour before until a half-hour after.

So, until further notice, don't expect cameras to operate in evenings or on weekends.

Now, on to the reversal about rules regarding school-hours signs: The state Transportation Department told us last month that signs announcing school hours are not necessary unless the times deviate from the 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. school-day standard.

When we followed up last week, the answer changed: "There does need to be [a sign with] time constraints on every school speed limit sign," department spokeswoman Carol Breen said. "Apparently, there was a miscommunication in our traffic office" that led to the initial, incorrect response.

Syosset resident Dennis O'Brien was among skeptics when the first response was printed in this column Aug. 24; he said the statement was out of sync with his understanding of the state supplement to the federal traffic control manual, the compilation of rules about traffic signs, signals and markings.

So he contacted the department and got an emailed response: "We've looked into this and you are correct," Breen wrote. "Hours are required to be posted on school-zone speed limit signs. I was given the incorrect information when responding to the reporter," a reference to yours truly.

The department did not inform Newsday of the error until we called.

The traffic manual supplement offers three options for signs announcing school hours: The school-zone speed limit sign can have (1) an additional sign showing the hours school is in session, (2) a sign showing the hours plus flashing lights that operate only when the school speed limit is in effect, or (3) a WHEN FLASHING sign with lights that operate only when the school speed limit is in effect.

Readers have told us that new speed enforcement signs have shown up at locations that don't have school-hours signs or yellow flashing lights. We asked the county if steps are underway to have such devices installed.

In a response Friday, the county said tickets have been issued only at locations that meet state traffic rules.

"Only school zones that meet the statutory requirement of posted hours [have] processed speed violations exceeding the posted limit by over 10 mph," according to an emailed statement from Marks. (The law permits speeding tickets for exceeding the posted limit by more than 10 mph.)

Don't expect flashing lights at all camera locations to arrive overnight. The county has said it is making plans for such installations but must first acquire power sources and equipment.

 

It's rare, but not impossible, to beat a red light camera ticket: Joe Albert did just that.

When Albert, who lives in the West Hills section of Huntington, contested his ticket -- it charged that his car did not halt before it reached the stop line on the pavement -- the hearing officer ruled that the ticket was unfounded.

Albert's defense was that the stop line was essentially invisible. The hearing officer "vacated it because he saw in the video that I did stop and the line . . . was all but worn away," Albert said after his appearance at Suffolk County's Traffic and Parking Violations Agency in Hauppauge. The judge ruled so fast, Albert said, that he didn't need to use the defense he had prepared.

The ticket came from a camera in the northbound lanes of Route 110 at Jericho Turnpike(Route 25) in Huntington Station. The white stop line has since been restored.

Albert isn't the first Long Islander to prevail in the face of a red light ticket, but we haven't heard of many. He said that about 25 cases were on the docket on his day in traffic court; his was one of two that got dismissed.

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