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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Nassau, Suffolk finding red-light camera revenues down or flat

A red-light camera warning sign at Indian Head

A red-light camera warning sign at Indian Head Road and Jericho Turnpike in Commack on April 11, 2016. Credit: Steve Pfost

Red liiight! — according to the children’s game, means stop.

Green liiight! — means go.

But on Long Island, we have a local variation of a very dangerous driving game: Yellow liiight! — which means muscle through an intersection, even as the traffic signal is milliseconds from cycling to red.

At the beginning, nobody liked the red-light cameras that now dot so many intersections in Nassau and Suffolk. And for good reason — no matter what elected officials in both budget-challenged counties said, the name of THAT game was get-some-fresh-revenue-in-here, and quick.

But according to two county reports, revenues from red-light camera programs either dropped or were flat in 2015, the most recent year for which the municipalities have statistics.

That means drivers in Nassau and Suffolk are learning — evolving even, as Long Islanders faced with challenges are wont to do, to pay more attention to red lights.

At least at intersections where there are cameras.

The statistics didn’t break it down, but it’s likely drivers making right turns on red, which account for the bulk of what the cameras capture, now slow to a stop before turning to avoid tickets.

In addition, after a few years of dealing with the program, most local drivers know the location of every red-light camera along most frequently traveled routes. Even if they don’t, more and more drivers are probably trying to eyeball whether there are electric eyes at unfamiliar intersections.

All of this bodes well for safety, although accidents involving injuries at some intersections are up in Suffolk. According to Suffolk’s report, rear-end collisions increased by 30 percent — a big, and troubling, statistic.

The increase in injury accidents at some locations in Suffolk, however, has led some county lawmakers to question the program’s impact. Legis. Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst) has gone so far as to introduce a bill that would suspend the program while Suffolk conducts a thorough safety study.

“We should be taking a hard look and stopping the program to make sure the cameras should be there, and at any intersections at all,” McCaffrey told Newsday.

Note please, that most of the discussion above has been about safety, which — rather than revenue — should be the focus of debate about the effectiveness of the red-light camera program.

Unfortunately, there’s no easy way to separate out safety goals from revenue enhancement that both counties have been, um, counting on. While there are no reports on the program yet from 2016 or 2017, Nassau and Suffolk already have been moving to tap new revenues, which would help fill the void left by drivers avoiding red-light camera-related citations.

Last year, Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano proposed a $105 “public safety fee” on traffic and parking tickets to pay for 150 new police officers and 81 civilian law enforcement employees. The fee — which applies to traffic violations, including red-light camera tickets, though not to parking tickets — was cut to $55.

Suffolk County legislators, after balking initially at County Executive Steve Bellone’s proposal to double the administrative fee on traffic and parking tickets to $110, last month indicated a change in their position. On Sept. 6, lawmakers are slated to vote on the measure, which would not apply to red-light camera citations.

Suffolk recently suffered a Wall Street bond rating decrease.

Nassau, unless it makes cuts or finds significant revenue, is facing the prospect that a state financial control board will summarily impose cuts.

That leaves both counties still navigating the tricky intersection of traffic safety and desperately needed revenue — which, in an election year, puts the red-light camera program eye on them, rather than on us.

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