Vehicles pass traffic signals near the entrance to Roosevelt Field mall on...

Vehicles pass traffic signals near the entrance to Roosevelt Field mall on Old Country Road in Garden City on Thursday.  Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Deaths from drivers plowing through red lights have hit a 10-year high nationally, but New York State is bucking that trend, according to study released Thursday.

Nationally, 939 people were killed due to drivers running red lights in 2017, which represented an 18 percent jump from the 799 deaths in 2008, according to the study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

But New York's numbers tell a different story for reasons that aren't completely clear.

The state saw red light deaths drop from 33 in 2008 to 19 in 2017, a 42 percent decrease, the study said. Between those years, the number of annual deaths rose and fell, but the past two years were the lowest.

Researchers said they did not analyze the reasons behind the figures, but said they saw trends such as distracted driving as a possible explanation for the national spike.

"There is no doubt that drivers interacting with smartphones, in their hands or connected through Bluetooth to the vehicle, contribute to driver distraction," said Jake Nelson, AAA director of traffic safety advocacy and research.

Researchers also pointed to the increasing availability of entertainment offerings and internet services in vehicles, and people driving more miles in a good economy.

But while all these factors also exist in New York, the state's trend in fatalities contrasts with the national statistics.

The AAA study found that nearly half of those killed nationally in these crashes were passengers in the car that ran the red light or people in other vehicles. The drivers of the lawbreaking vehicle represented about a third of those killed. About 5 percent were pedestrians or cyclists.

In trying to explain the New York figures, Robert Sinclair Jr., spokesman for AAA Northeast, pointed to the expanding use of red-light cameras in New York, and in particular on Long Island.

"If done properly, like Nassau County, red-light cameras help prevent T-bone crashes that can be very dangerous," Sinclair said, referring to the collisions that occur when a vehicle speeds through a light and smashes into the side of another vehicle.

He called Nassau's program an "exemplar for the nation," saying it follows the standards of the Institute of Transportation Engineers in that the county measures the size of an intersection and speeds of vehicles to determine the length of time provided for a yellow light.  

Nassau County officials said they have seen an overall reduction in crashes at red-light camera intersections.

"Rear-end crashes, head-on crashes and overall crash categories have been reduced," said spokeswoman Chris Geed.

Between 2008 and 2017, Nassau had 30 deaths resulting from drivers running red lights; Suffolk had 44, according to AAA figures. A year-by-year breakdown was not available Thursday.

Sinclair said AAA had not taken a close look at Suffolk County's program for red-light cameras.

Suffolk County officials are in the midst of an intense debate over the future of the red light camera program. Supporters say the cameras are changing driver's bad behavior.

"You have a distracted driving epidemic," said Paul Margiotta, executive director of the Suffolk County Traffic and Parking Violations Agency. Pointing to the $80 fine drivers receive for running a red light, he added, "People learn by negative consequences."

Critics of the Suffolk program, however, have said it is designed to be a moneymaker for the county rather than a safety measure. They also complain the program has slowed traffic and increased the number of accidents at red-light camera intersections.

On Thursday, a Suffolk public safety committee held off making a recommendation on whether the program should be extended for five years, leaving the question to the County Legislature.

Margiotta said Suffolk is beginning a campaign to educate the public on the dangers of distracted driving. The campaign will include public service announcements and the distribution of special cases into which a driver can place a cellphone while driving. These cases, which he said resemble an eyeglass case, prevent the phone from receiving any signals.

"So you're not tempted to pick it up while driving," he said.

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