Revenue from red light camera tickets in Nassau declined by more than 12 percent in 2012, the first dip in the program's three-year history, according to new county data.
Figures from Nassau's official 2012 report to the state show that accidents involving injuries at 57 red-light-camera intersections dropped by an annual average of 18 percent since installation, compared with the 12-month period before the cameras were put in place.
Rear-end crashes dropped by an average of nearly 19 percent, compared with a 20 percent increase in Suffolk County for the same period, which began its red light camera program in 2010, one year after Nassau.
In 2012, Nassau's red light camera program generated $22.9 million in fines and fees, according to the data, which were compiled by the county.
American Traffic Solutions, the private vendor that installed and operates the system, was paid $7.9 million -- about 34 percent of total revenue. Nassau pays the firm a percentage of the fines and penalties paid by motorists, county spokesman Brian Nevin said. Suffolk pays its vendor, Xerox State and Local Solutions, 42 percent of ticket revenue and half of the $25 late fees.
In 2011, Nassau's red light cameras produced $26.1 million in revenue -- a 75 percent increase from 2010, when they generated $14.9 million in revenue. American Traffic Solutions was paid $8.3 million in 2011 and $4.4 million in 2010.
The first red light cameras were installed at county intersections in 2009, when Nassau received $2.4 million in program revenue for the partial year, and paid American Traffic Solutions $650,000.
Supporters say the program has boosted public safety by encouraging motorists to drive more cautiously. Critics say the cameras are merely revenue generators, capturing minor infractions, such as slow rolling through right turns. Fines are $50 per violation, plus a $30 administrative fee.
The 2012 report comes as officials prepare to install speed cameras in all public school districts on Long Island, including 56 in Nassau. The county is relying on millions of dollars in expected revenue from the speed cameras to help pay for new labor contracts for unionized county employees. The legislature is to vote Monday on a contract for American Traffic Solutions to operate and install the speed cameras, officials said.
Motorists more careful
Chris Mistron, Nassau's traffic safety coordinator, said the dip in revenue and accidents was due to motorists driving more carefully -- not only at camera intersections, but also on surrounding roadways.
"This program is having a long-term positive effect on safety in Nassau," Mistron said.
"The most important fact is that red light cameras have been found to reduce fatalities and serious injuries," said Richard Retting, director of safety research for Sam Schwartz Engineering, a Washington, D.C., firm that does traffic and transportation planning studies for public and private sector clients.
Todd Palmirotto, a retired carpenter from Glen Cove, complained that Nassau "says it's a safety issue, but it's just about revenue. The county just needs to pay its bills." Palmirotto, who says he has never received a red light camera ticket, wants more signage warning motorists of the cameras.
Samuel Litt, an information technology specialist from Great Neck, said the revenues, which currently go into the county general fund, should go to law enforcement programs and to improving area roadways.
"There is no traceability to where the money is going," said Litt, who says he has never received a red light camera ticket. "There is no monetary benefit to the community. They are just using the cameras to mine the county."
The cameras have created a steady and significant revenue stream for both Nassau and Suffolk, which face tight budgets and deficits. Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano and Suffolk Executive Steve Bellone have pledged not to increase property taxes.
Nassau's report to the state, released May 2 at Newsday's request, comes 11 months after the deadline set by the 2009 legislation that authorized the first batch of 50 cameras each for Nassau and Suffolk.
Mistron said the analysis was delayed so Nassau could provide additional data for cameras installed in 2011 and 2012.
The State Legislature has since authorized 50 more camera locations each for Nassau and Suffolk. Mistron said there are now cameras at 71 Nassau intersections, and that the final 29 sites will be selected soon.
The 2012 report shows motorists paid $11.7 million in total fines and $11.2 million in additional fees.
More than 700 motorists challenged violations in court, succeeding about 20 percent of the time, the data show.
Fewer crashes, county says
Unofficial figures for 2013 show revenue from red light cameras increased 60 percent from 2012 as Nassau brought more cameras online, county officials said. There were 495,685 violations that generated $36.8 million in gross revenue in 2013, and American Traffic Solutions was paid $8.9 million, Nevin said.
Nassau has budgeted $38 million in red light camera revenue for 2014.
Nearly 14 percent of the 1.7 million red light camera tickets issued by Nassau in the past five years have not been paid. Nassau has hired a firm to claw back roughly $24.2 million in unpaid violations and fees, Nevin said.
Suffolk has 175,262 unpaid citations totaling $13.4 million dating back to 2010, said Paul Margiotta, executive director of the county's Traffic and Parking Violations Agency.
Nassau's report shows that accidents involving an injury at intersections with cameras declined from 733 the year before the cameras were installed to an annual average of 599 after they were put in place.
Side-impact crashes went from 521 the year before installations to an annual average of 377 through 2012.
Head-on crashes declined from 88 to an annual average of 43, while rear-end collisions dipped from an average of 1,002 to 815.
Overall, there were 1,826 accidents at the 57 intersections the year before the cameras were installed and an average of 1,449 per year afterward, the analysis shows.
In Suffolk, total camera revenue dropped by 24 percent in 2012 compared with 2011 as motorists became more aware of cameras at dozens of intersections, officials said. Accidents involving injuries dipped by an average of 10 percent annually compared with the 12-month period before cameras were installed. But rear-end collisions jumped an average of nearly 20 percent a year in Suffolk as drivers hit the brakes to avoid tickets.
Mistron explained the drop in rear-enders in Nassau by saying roads there typically are more congested than in Suffolk, leading to slower driving speeds and less risk of rear-end collisions.
Retting said national findings on rear-end crashes at red light camera intersections are inconsistent, with some studies showing increases and others decreases. He said the duration of the yellow signal, traffic speeds and driver awareness can play a role.
Ryan Lynch, associate director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a nonprofit dedicated to reducing car dependency in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, noted that Nassau began its camera program a year before Suffolk, providing motorists with more time to adjust their driving habits.
Lynch said Nassau's statistics largely mirror other municipalities where accidents decline the longer the cameras are operational.
"Motorists are driving more cautiously, making the roads safer for them and everyone around them," he said.
With David M. Schwartz