In the face of criticism from the public and county legislators over the unpopular speed camera program, Nassau County executive Edward Mangano and administration officials have so far fended off calls to repeal the program with a simple rebuttal: It's about safety.
But a Newsday computer analysis of traffic accident data shows that the speed cameras are monitoring dozens of areas with no history of speed-related accidents, supporting the public's perception that there was a rush to set up the cameras and help fill the county's coffers with the program's $80 tickets.
When looking at crashes that occurred during daylight hours on a weekday -- when school might be in session -- and where speed was reported as a factor, Newsday's analysis found no such accidents between 2009 and 2013 in 57 of the 76 school zones the county has said it is monitoring with speed cameras. There were a total of 23 speed-related crashes in the other 19 monitored locations over the five-year period Newsday analyzed.
Even when looking at all types of crashes that occurred on any day, and at any time of the day, eight of the 76 school zones did not see a single accident during the five years Newsday analyzed. Meanwhile, the newspaper's analysis found 10 school zones where at least one accident was reported that are not on the list of locations the county is monitoring.
(After launching the speed camera program in September, county officials said they are monitoring more locations than the original 76 they listed in October. Newsday's analysis does not include those additional school zones because the county has declined to reveal their locations).
The state legislation that authorized the speed camera program required county officials to review crash history in determining where to place the cameras. Mangano spokesman Brian Nevin said county officials did review crash history, but he did not provide any records detailing that review despite repeated requests.
Nevin said officials also picked areas to monitor based on visits to the school zones and requests from school administrators.
In response to questions for this story, Nevin cited county data showing 42 percent of those receiving tickets from being caught by the speed cameras were exceeding the speed limit in school zones by more than 15 mph. Instead of answering questions for this story, Nevin provided statements about the program from previous news releases.
Based on the revenue generated, the cameras have caught a lot of speeding drivers, who must exceed the limit by more than 10 mph in a school zone to be ticketed. According to a Dec. 3 county financial report, the program has raised $16.6 million -- the equivalent of more than 200,000 tickets.
The money from those tickets helped county officials lift a three-year freeze on employee pay raises, but the county's approach to selecting camera sites has in part fueled criticism that the program was focused more on money than safety.
Even county legislators who voted unanimously to implement the speed camera program are now moving to repeal it in the face of increased public anger. Local lawmakers have blamed a rushed rollout that has already seen county officials refund $2.4 million in tickets because camera were operating in front of schools that were not in session.
Nassau's Democratic minority legislators gathered outside the Theodore Roosevelt Executive and Legislative Building in Mineola just before the November election and called for the program to be scrapped. Tuesday, Presiding Officer Norma Gonsalves (R-East Meadow), the leader of the county legislature's GOP majority, introduced legislation that would repeal the program.
County officials tried to quell the criticism by getting additional signs installed to warn drivers of the school zones and, in early December, reduced the hours the cameras operate to times when children usually arrive and leave school, 7-9 a.m. and 2-4 p.m. on school days.
Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an organization that supports speed cameras, said winning public support for a speed camera program is not "rocket science." Rader said using accident data to identify a safety issue is one way of doing so.
"If the public understands that you are trying to solve a safety problem, they will support you," Rader said. "If they believe that you are trying to solve a budget problem, it is a recipe for trouble."
State act limited cameras
The state legislation Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed in June authorizing the speed camera program called for cameras to only monitor school zones.
A review of transcripts from state hearings did not uncover the sort of accident analysis conducted by Newsday, and requests for similar information to sponsors of the state legislation produced no results. In addition, Nassau lawmakers were not presented with an analysis of school zone accidents before approving the speed camera program on the local level.
Months after Nassau County implemented its program, the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a nonprofit advocacy group that supports speed cameras, released a study showing nearly 40 percent of the county's 37 fatal pedestrian accidents in 2012 happened within a quarter-mile of a school -- the maximum size of a school zone allowed under law.
However, the Tri-State analysis looked at accidents within a quarter-mile as a bird flies. As a result, only one of the accidents occurred within an actual school zone, and that was on a Sunday and not speed-related, according to the database used by the nonprofit.
Tri-State Executive Director Veronica Vanterpool said whether a pedestrian was killed inside, or just outside, of a school zone is not the issue when it comes to preventing fatalities.
"We stand by our analysis just as much as you do by yours," Vanterpool said.
For its analysis, Newsday created an electronic map of each of the 76 school zones, basing the length of each zone on a review of photos of traffic signs in the area taken by Google's Street View Cameras. When such imagery was not available, Newsday created school zones that were the maximum length allowed by law.
Newsday matched the school zones to a statewide New York Department of Transportation database of 2.6 million accidents that occurred between 2009 and 2013. The same database can be used by local agencies, including Nassau County, to identify dangerous stretches of road.
The database shows there are 379 stretches of road at least one-tenth of a mile that each had more speed-related accidents than the most crash-prone school zone, where only two such accidents occurred during daytime, weekday hours.
That includes a quarter-mile stretch of Sheridan Boulevard between Solomon Avenue and Oak Avenue in Inwood that saw 14 speed-related accidents. It also includes a quarter-mile of Woodbury Road between Syosset-Woodbury Road and Hunting Hill Road that saw eight speed-related accidents.
According to the New York DOT data, there was only one fatal crash in Nassau County's monitored school zones that occurred during weekday, daytime hours -- and speed was not listed as a factor.
That fatal crash happened in 2009 near Theodore Roosevelt Elementary School in Oyster Bay. A 90-year-old woman died when her car went off the road, through a parking lot, onto a beach and into a tree "for unknown reasons," according to the report of the crash.
Frequent crashes were reported at some of the school zones Newsday reviewed, including eight zones that averaged more than five crashes per year during weekday, daytime hours. Speed was rarely a factor, a For instance, an average of 23 accidents a year occurred during those hours on the roads abutting Harbor Hill Elementary in Greenvale during the five years reviewed -- none of them speed-related.
Richard Retting, a traffic engineering researcher with more than 30 years of experience who has conducted several studies of speed camera programs, said examining crash data is an important step in selecting camera enforcement sites and winning public support, but it doesn't need to be the justification for ensuring motorists obey the speed limit.
"I have five children of my own," Retting said. "There's something to be said for wanting to make school zones places where children are not exposed to speeding vehicles, whether there has been a crash there or not."
No crashes near school
Hundreds of residents gathered in the Cantiague Elementary School auditorium in Jericho in October to demand that the county remove the speed camera in front of the school. Gary Strauss, a local homeowner, said during the meeting that the school zone had no known history of accidents.
Strauss was right. The Cantiague Rock Road school zone is one of eight where Newsday found no reported accidents of any kind between 2009 and 2013.
Strauss, a member of the Cantiague Rock Road Speed Zone Fairness Coalition, the group that organized the public meeting, said the results of Newsday's analysis don't surprise him.
"That is because of what we have been stressing all along," Strauss said. "This is a stretch of road that has always been safe."
Newsday's analysis did find that some cameras were placed on roads with historically high numbers of accidents, just not on the section of those roads with the highest numbers of accidents.
For example, there were 81 speed-related accidents -- resulting in 80 injuries and five fatalities -- on the nine miles of Jerusalem Avenue from Hempstead to North Amityville. However, none of the accidents occurred in the two school zones with cameras on that road: Turtle Hook Middle School in Uniondale and Schwarting Elementary School in Massapequa.
Newsday also found 10 school zones where at least one accident occurred that the county has not said it is monitoring. For example, an unmonitored school zone on Peninsula Boulevard near Lawrence High School in Cedarhurst saw 74 accidents during the five years analyzed, including two speed-related accidents that occurred during weekday, daytime hours.
Strauss said his group, one of several protesting the camera program, supports cameras placed in areas where there are safety problems. But he said placing them in areas with no accidents makes it look like the program is about money.
"If they did it the right way, it could have improved safety," Strauss said. "But now if they don't change quickly, they are going to have a hard time convincing the public that this program is for safety."
With Celeste Hadrick