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Study: More crashes, but fewer serious ones, at Suffolk red-light camera sites

A sign warning of a red-light camera at

A sign warning of a red-light camera at an intersection in Commack. Credit: Steve Pfost

Crashes at Suffolk County’s 100 current red-light camera intersections increased by 59.6 percent for three years ending in 2017, compared with the three-year period before cameras were installed in 2010, a new county study shows, but fatal crashes and those involving injuries decreased nearly 11 percent.  

The $250,000 study by consultant L.K. McLean Associates also recommended extending the controversial program for another five years, estimating the red-light cameras have achieved $5.12 million in savings by reducing deadly and serious accidents.

The county initiated the red-light camera program in 2010 after getting state approval with the aim of reducing serious traffic accidents, with the added benefit of raising millions of dollars in new revenue.

Controversy over the program led the county legislature to direct the public works department to commission a study on how well the program was working.  

However, the report also urges that the county consider further monitoring or possible relocation of 15 other red-light camera intersections where fatal accidents and those involving injuries have not been reduced by the presence of the cameras. 

The 118-page study found the total number of crashes at red-light camera intersections increased from 3,515  for three years before the system was put in place, from 2007 to 2009, to 5,612 from 2015 to 2017, the study period for red-light camera enforcement.

That compares to a 12.1 percent increase in crashes at all county intersections with traffic signals during the same periods, the study found. Had crashes at the red-light camera intersections occurred at the same rate, the study said, the county would have had 3,940 crashes, but instead it experienced 1,672 more than that number, or about 557 more crashes per year.

“The analyses confirms the trend identified in prior studies of red-light camera location in other municipalities that concluded that overall crashes increase but fatal and injury crashes decrease,” the study stated.

Amy Keyes, County Executive Steve Bellone’s top legislative lobbyist, said the study confirms “the program is working,” and disclosed that a proposed local law to extend the program for five years was filed with the county legislature late Tuesday night.

Keyes said a public hearing will be held on the proposed extension of the program at the July 16 county legislature meeting in Hauppauge. A vote by the full county legislature could come at the Sept. 4 meeting.

“The most important thing about the red-light camera program is that it's saving lives,” said Legis. Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai), who pressed for the study in late 2017, noting the report found that left-turn crashes were reduced 17 percent and right-angle crashes cut 56.4 percent 

But she added, “I’m disappointed with the report because I wanted to understand why these accidents are happening and it didn’t explain that.” She said she is most upset the study did not deal with the impact of distracted driving in accidents. She said 24 percent of motor vehicle accidents in Suffolk County involve distracted driving, nearly double the 14 percent number nationwide.

While backers say the controversial program is aimed at reducing accidents, Republican lawmakers have criticized the program as simply a way to generate in excess of $20 million in revenue annually for the cash-strapped county.

“What jumps off the page to me is the tremendous increase in the number of accidents at red-light camera intersections,” said Legis. Tom Cilmi of Bay Shore, GOP caucus leader. “They sold this program as a means to protect public safety and clearly it hasn’t done that.”

Cilmi said the report also found that rear-end accidents are up 46 percent, and  "overtaking," or side-to-side crashes, are up 56 percent.  He urged lawmakers to consider alternate strategies to reduce accidents, such as reconfiguring intersections to make them safer.

But Paul Margiotta, executive director of Suffolk’s Traffic and Parking Violations Agency, said some comparisons in the study, especially in total accidents, are flawed.  “You are looking at the worst intersections in Suffolk County and comparing them with intersections that may only see 10 cars a day,” he said. “These intersections are high-traffic and dangerous and that’s why red-light cameras are there.”

He also said the comparison of the two time periods studied does not take into account the increase in the number of drivers or the epidemic of distracted driving due to increased cellphone use. 

Margiotta said the number of licensed drivers in Suffolk County has grown by 45,000 from 1.09 million in 2009, and the number of registered vehicles has increased 61,000 from 1.21 million in 2009.

Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Copiague) said he has not had time to review the entire study but believes there’s continuing support for the program. He also said that officials should review red-light camera locations that are not working, citing those in Copiague and Central Islip, which are  “low-income communities where drivers are not paying tickets because they can’t afford to pay.”

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