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More traffic cameras for safety

A sign and red-light camera on Middle Country

A sign and red-light camera on Middle Country Road near Holbrook Road in Centereach (Aug. 18, 2011). Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

Red-light cameras are deterring light-jumping well enough in Suffolk that the county is considering moving some of them to other locations. That makes sense, because Suffolk has permission from Albany for cameras at only 50 intersections. So it needs to spread them around judiciously. But what makes more sense is more cameras.

Suffolk, as well as Nassau, should continue to pursue permission from Albany, where the Assembly needs to be less stubborn about it.

In the past legislative session, there were separate bills in the legislature to allow Nassau and Suffolk each to increase the number of intersections covered by cameras to 100. But neither bill got through the Assembly, at least in part because of a spirited dispute between Assemb. Earlene Hooper (D-Hempstead), the deputy speaker, and Nassau County officials, over youth programs and other funding issues.

Red-light cameras are about both safety and about revenue. They should be about safety first, but the Nassau struggle was nakedly over revenue, given the county's problems. Revenue is a concern in Suffolk, too. But the man who first pushed for the cameras a decade ago was motivated by a serious red-light accident that injured a friend.

Back then, he was just county Legis. William Lindsay (D-Holbrook). Now he's the presiding officer. And last week, he got another, almost surreal, reminder of the need for the cameras. When he first introduced the bill, he held a news conference at a dangerous intersection in Holbrook. On Thursday afternoon, at that same intersection, a driver witnesses say ran a red light collided with a car containing Lindsay's wife, Patricia, their twin grandsons and their daughter. Happily, their injuries were not serious. Still, the accident was a reminder that drivers who run red lights need the relatively low-cost behavior modification that the cameras can provide.

A decade after that news conference, there still was no red-light camera at that intersection. So far, the county has put the cameras only at state-road intersections, and this wasn't one of them. But at the intersections where the cameras do exist, there's been a significant decline in light running. So Lindsay says the county is considering moving about 10 percent of the cameras to different locations. That will involve conversations with the vendor who is providing the service, under contract to the county.

In the new legislative session, Albany should pass the bills that will allow both counties, as well as New York City, to expand the number of intersections. And Nassau and Suffolk should work hard to make sure that the new crossings are the most dangerous ones. There's an open question as to whether to also deploy decoy cameras, or leave warning signs at intersections where the working cameras have been removed. It's the vehicular equivalent of a placebo. Decoys seem to work in the five boroughs, why not here?

The cameras are a case where the bad news can also turn out to be good news: If revenue is declining, that means people are obeying the law, not running lights, and not getting as many tickets. Less revenue isn't helpful to budgets, but it's a sign that the cameras really are helping to modify a destructive driving behavior.