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Red-light camera program sparks sharp debate in Suffolk County Legislature

Suffolk legislators on Monday criticized an analysis of the county’s red-light cameras as lawmakers prepared for a key vote Thursday on extending the program for another five years.

The $250,000 study by L.K. McLean Associates, a county consultant, said crashes of all types at the 100 intersections with red-light cameras increased by nearly 60 percent from 2015 through 2017, compared with the three-year period before cameras were installed in 2010. The 118-page study also found that crashes in which injuries occurred decreased by nearly 11 percent, while the number of fatalities during the three-year period remained unchanged at 17.

The report also cited decreases in the number of accidents in which one vehicle was making a left turn, and in so-called T-bone crashes involving side impact.

But the report said the number of rear-end collisions and accidents involving sideswipes increased.

The consultants, who testified Monday before the County Legislature's Public Works Committee in Hauppauge, declined to draw a direct correlation between the cameras and the crash data, but nonetheless recommended extending the program. Consultants estimated the camera program had produced $5.12 million in savings by reducing serious accidents.

"The red-light camera program should be continued due to a reduction in crashes resulting in injury and fatalities and a corresponding reduction in left turn or right angle crashes, which are those types of crashes associated with red-light camera running," said Raymond DiBiase, president and chief executive of L.K. McLean Associates. 

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone and officials in the county public works department credit the cameras with improving public safety.

Critics say the main purpose of the program, which generates more than $20 million in revenues annually, is to raise money for the county. 

Lawmakers from both political parties found fault Monday with the report's methodology and findings. 

Some criticized the consultants for highlighting that fatal accidents at red-light camera intersections remained flat, while not mentioning a precipitous decline in fatal accidents on all county roads.

Others said the consultants used "arbitrary" parameters to determine if an accident was related to a red-light camera intersection.

The State Department of Transportation defines an intersection crash as occurring within 33 feet from the center-point crossroads.

The consultants expanded the area to within 200 feet of the center point, likely capturing some crashes that may not have been included using the state criteria.

Legis. Robert Trotta (R-Fort Salonga), who has called for the camera program's suspension, accused the consultants of "manipulating" the data to portray the performance of the cameras in a more positive light.

"You can take this report and throw it in the garbage can," Trotta said. "It's a joke; literally embarrassing … Everything here is jaded to make this program look good."

Legis. Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai), who pressed for the study in late 2017, said she was "deeply disappointed" in the report for failing to examine the relationship between distracted driving and crashes at red-light camera intersections. 

"Distracted driving is why a lot of these accidents are happening," Anker said. "We are here to try and understand how to make this program better. We know it's saving lives. But we also know it's also creating problems."

DiBiase said determining if an accident was caused by distracted driving is difficult, often because of a lack of witnesses or evidence. 

The committee is scheduled to vote Thursday on whether to extend the red-light camera program for another five years. If approved by the panel, the extension will have to be passed by the full County Legislature.

Also Monday, the Environment, Planning and Agriculture Committee voted unanimously to prohibit the intentional release of helium-filled balloons to protect the environment. The measure, which would replace existing county law limiting releases to 25 balloons per day, would be punishable by a fine of $500 for the first violation; $750 for the second and $1,000 for subsequent violations. The full legislature is scheduled to consider the bill at its Sept. 4 meeting.

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