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School zone speed camera program has bugs to work out

Troy Martinez on South Franklin Street in Hempstead,

Troy Martinez on South Franklin Street in Hempstead, across from Franklin School on Aug. 4 2014. Credit: Newsday / Judy Cartwright

One school speed zone ticket equals $80 of unhappiness, and that's just the beginning

By the end of last week, we had heard of one driver who had received eight of them -- that's $640 of unhappiness -- and a family whose tickets amounted to $3,000 of misery.

At least for now, that anguish can be put to rest.

Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano's decision Friday to dismiss all tickets issued since the cameras began operating last month gives drivers a second chance. And it gives the county a do-over.

School speed zone cameras in Nassau -- Suffolk's program won't launch until after the first of the year -- caught most of us unaware, and drivers are vexed. We heard from dozens last week whose exasperation started with a common theme: How could anyone have known which schools had summer sessions?

The cameras will resume operation when the new school year gets underway next month. It should become clear quickly if irregularities -- such as cameras issuing tickets at times they shouldn't -- have been worked out. As for how drivers will be notified which schools are having summer sessions? We may have to wait until next summer.

That was one of the questions Marlene D'Amelia of Hicksville raised when she opened the mail to find a speed camera ticket. D'Amelia was relying on what she had read about the program: That (1) the state law that permits use of the cameras allows one per school district, and (2) in July Nassau identified Dutch Lane Elementary on Stewart Avenue as a camera site. She told her son to be careful because his daily drive takes him past that school.

So imagine her surprise, and indignation, when she got a ticket issued by a camera at another location in the district, Hicksville High School on Division Avenue.

Multiple locations -- there's a third camera within district boundaries, at Our Lady of Mercy on South Oyster Bay Road -- meet the letter of the law because only one camera is in use at any one time, Nassau traffic safety coordinator Christopher Mistron told us. The one at Our Lady of Mercy is a permanent installation, he said, and mobile units have been used at the other sites. That practice leaves photo-enforcement signs in position at sites when cameras are not in use.

D'Amelia had planned to contest her ticket.

"As a senior citizen with no children in Hicksville schools . . . I have no way of knowing when school is in session except during normal hours when school starts," she told us in an email. "It was evident that there was no activity going on anywhere [at the high school], and I did not realize anything until I saw the light flash in my rearview mirror. I thought that they were testing the cameras, so I didn't think anything of it." Until she opened her mail.

Several readers wanted to know where the signs are that tell drivers what hours school is in session. We shouldn't wait, the state Department of Transportation said: Such signs are not always necessary.

We had asked the department about the signs after reviewing a section of the state supplement to the federal traffic control manual: It says school speed limit signs "shall contain one of the following," then lists options, including a sign showing the hours the speed limit is in effect or a similar sign plus yellow lights that would flash during those hours.

Admittedly, we're not expert in this area, which is why we turned to the department. "We do not require the times to be on the [speed limit] sign unless it deviates" from the state school-day standard of 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., department spokeswoman Carol Breen said: for example, if school were in session from 7 to 9 a.m. and 2 to 4 p.m.

Reader Dennis O'Brien of Syosset takes issue with that interpretation. O'Brien, a retired FDNY lieutenant, said it's his understanding that school hour signs are required "or the school zone speed limit is invalid."

On yet another issue, a number of readers had done their homework and determined their tickets were issued on days when, according to district calendars, summer school was not in session. The county had already sent letters telling drivers those tickets had been erased from the system before Friday's announcement, Mistron said.

A final question, at least for today, was the one asked most often: If cameras are going to operate during after-school activities, plus a half-hour on either end, how will passing drivers know when such an activity is occurring?

We'll have to wait for the answer: Mistron said those details are being worked out.

The speed camera program is a work in progress.

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