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Editorial: Nassau falls into its own speed trap

A speed camera clocks vehicles traveling southbound on

A speed camera clocks vehicles traveling southbound on Utopia Parkway near 56th Avenue towards Francis Lewis High School in Queens on Sept. 2, 2014. Credit: Charles Eckert

If the purpose of installing 56 speed cameras in Nassau County, one in each public school district, is to improve safety by persuading drivers to slow down, they shouldn't be told where the cameras are located.

Ideally, the fear of tickets would slow down traffic at every school. Unsure of where they might be nabbed, speeders would be careful everywhere.

That's why telling motorists where the cameras are, as Nassau now plans to do, is like saying police with radar guns must post signs 500 yards ahead reading: "There's a Cop With a Radar Gun Up Ahead, So Slow Down or You'll Get a Ticket."

Drivers have a right to be told clearly where school speed zones start, what the speed limits are, and when lower "school day" limits are in effect. And that costs $$$$.

What the current brouhaha over the Nassau cameras exposes is the phony claim that this is being done for safety. It has become a solution in search of a problem. No one reported an epidemic of serious accidents in school zones recently. In that sense, speed cameras are different from red-light cameras, which came first. While red-light cameras incite controversy, there is evidence they cut the number of serious accidents caused by drivers running red lights.

Now that he has trapped himself into making this a safety-first program, County Executive Edward Mangano needs to borrow $6.5 million to install signs and flashing lights at all 434 public and private schools. Didn't Nassau's elected officials in Albany fight for the cameras to help earn money, not spend it? The county is mired in red ink and officials projected the cameras would bring in $25 million to $30 million annually. That's more than 500,000 tickets a year -- every one with an angry taxpayer at the receiving end.

Nassau found that out when it issued almost 40,000 tickets in the summer, before school had begun. About 10,000 of them were issued in error, and most people didn't know the program had started. The county then dismissed all the tickets and never saw a penny of the $2.4 million in revenue they would have brought in.

Meanwhile, as Nassau has rushed to get the cash flowing, Suffolk has been glad to take its time and learn from Nassau's tribulations. Suffolk will not start its program before 2015. It is budgeting only $2.5 million in revenue from the cameras next year, and still working out technical details. In other words, Suffolk will try to avoid every hurried move that has backfired on Nassau County officials.

Traffic-control cameras are meant to change behaviors. For 56 cameras to change the behavior of drivers in Nassau, there needs to be a bit of mystery about where the cameras -- whether stationary or mobile -- are located. And in all fairness, drivers need to know when the lower limits are in effect.

If drivers feel they're being entrapped to fill county coffers, their anger is justified. If they're angry because they don't want to slow down, that's too bad. It's about safety. If doing it the fair way costs the county coffers, well, fairness is all we ever wanted, anyway. Right?