Suffolk County asked state legislators for permission to install speed...

Suffolk County asked state legislators for permission to install speed cameras in dozens of school zones -- a program that supporters said would increase safety for children and raise an estimated $6.8 million a year for the county. Credit: Courtesy of Xerox

Nassau County sold its speed cameras as a way to increase safety near schools, while the real goal was revenue. That was dishonest. Then it introduced the program with no warning, before the school year started, bombarding the mailboxes of drivers with tickets. That was disastrous.

Yet the uproar over what County Executive Edward Mangano has done in this disingenuous and poorly executed rollout overshadows some disturbing evidence the experiment has produced: Long Islanders often drive dangerously fast, even on roads in front of schools and even when school is in session.

So let's pause and use some common sense to figure out what to do next.

The Nassau County Legislature voted unanimously to approve the program. Now the same legislators are likely to flip-flop and vote unanimously Monday to ban the cameras.

Suffolk County wanted to observe Nassau's program before beginning its own. Now County Executive Steve Bellone says it never will use the speed cameras because the well of public sentiment has been poisoned.

So just how did we get here, and where, at a careful and appropriate speed, do we need to go?

Mangano and his people blew it. By Aug. 30, before school began in Nassau County, the county had issued more than 40,000 tickets and drivers were boiling over like broken radiators. At least 10,000 of those tickets were issued mistakenly, and all 40,000 were forgiven, at a cost of $2.4 million.

Issuing thousands of tickets to drivers unaware of the cameras, under the guise of protecting schoolchildren, was the first wrong turn.

Things only got worse as the county issued more than 424,000 tickets from Sept. 2 through Dec. 5. There wasn't enough warning to drivers to slow down near schools. Tickets were issued all day, rather than merely during drop-off and pickup times, making the "revenue over safety" message blindingly clear.

Beyond the implementation, the politics of selling the program got ugly: Mangano and legislators wanted to lift a wage freeze for police and other county employees to please powerful unions, so they needed revenue. The Nassau Interim Finance Authority, the county's fiscal watchdog, said, in effect, "Show me the money." Everybody was happy until the tickets started flying. Then the uproar began.

Mangano's biggest need, three years away from his next election, is revenue. But county legislators, less than one year from elections, need voter support.

Last week Mangano sent legislators a letter listing the horrible ways they might be able to find the $30 million a year he needs to replace the ticket revenue. But he did not list ways to keep school zones safe if the cameras go away, because, as a Newsday report also showed last week, the school zones were mostly quite safe even before the cameras were installed. Do you need any more proof that this program has always been about money?

So should the program be axed? No. It should be suspended -- then reintroduced in a different way.

We've seen enough data from the program to know that people drive way too fast in some school zones, and we'd like to see that curtailed. Almost 40 percent of tickets were issued to drivers exceeding the speed limit by more than 15 mph. We also know there are roads in the county, such as Hempstead Turnpike, that are not school zones but where people are killed and injured because of speeding.

And we know the county could have to pay a fee of as much as $7 million if it terminates its contract with American Traffic Solutions, the cameras' administrator.

So a reasonable, limited speed-camera program to ensure safety in the many places where it's needed, with appropriate warnings and signs, makes sense.

The driving in Nassau is often too fast. An honest program that discourages that would be welcome.

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