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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Red-light camera ticket fee increase is DOA in Nassau

The legislature’s GOP leader, Richard Nicolello, says County Executive Laura Curran’s plan to boost fees is ‘dead on arrival.’

A sign notifying drivers of a red-light camera

A sign notifying drivers of a red-light camera is seen in Westbury in 2011. Photo Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran’s proposal to raise red-light camera program fees by 2 percent is “dead on arrival,” Richard Nicolello, the county legislature’s presiding officer, said in an interview Wednesday.

Red-light cameras, which were put into place in Nassau beginning in 2009, were supposed to reduce accidents.

But the idea also — despite ongoing protestations from some elected officials — allowed Nassau, and Suffolk, to jump into a new revenue stream and ride it straight into the county’s general fund, where the money can be used to pay for anything from paper clips to salary increases.

In the early years, red-light revenue rolled in as Long Island motorists learned that making a right turn on red was a violation if the vehicle did not stop completely, behind the line, before proceeding.

In Nassau, 55 percent of tickets are issued for that violation, 42 percent are for going through the intersection, and 3 percent are for left-hand turns, according to officials.

There’s no denying the program works, safetywise. Nassau’s most recent report, for 2016, showed accidents down in all categories at intersections with red-light cameras, compared with the same intersections before the program was in place.

But could the county’s before-and-after method of comparison also mask some issues with its red-light program?

A Newsday analysis of 2016 data at 64 intersections showed an increase in accidents, including those with injuries, compared with 2015 figures. The county’s report includes no such analysis.

What does that rise in accidents, including rear-end collisions and side-impact crashes, show?

“The county is investigating to see if there is a countywide increase in accident data in all locations, not just red-light camera monitored locations,” according to Michael Martino, a spokesman for Curran, who is a Democrat.

Perhaps accidents did increase all around because of, say, bad weather, a glut of inexperienced drivers, increased traffic or other factors. Still, such increases merit further scrutiny.

As for red-light revenue, lawmakers balking against further increases are on the right track.

To clarify, the fine for a red-light violation statewide is $50, and the late-payment penalty is $25. Both are set by the state.

In Nassau, there’s an additional $55 public-safety fee and a $45 driver-responsibility fee, which brings the total in Nassau to $150, compared with $80 in fines and fees in Suffolk.

The red-light safety programs anticipated that, as motorist behavior changed, tickets — and by extension, red-light revenue — would decrease.

And they did.

In Nassau, the first significant jump in red-light revenue since 2012, when the county added 11 cameras, came from a 2016 increase in the driver-responsibility fee. Until then, Nassau’s red-light revenue had declined or been flat.

Curran’s proposal to raise the two administrative fees appears to be going nowhere. “If we can find a way not to impact the budget, I would like to reduce the fees because they’re already too high,” said Nicolello (R-New Hyde Park).

Until then, however, be warned.

Nassau has yet to install its state-authorized limit of 100 red-light cameras.

There were 86 in place in 2016.

And officials have yet to release any revenue or accident data for 2017 — even though 2018 already is half gone.

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