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Michael Miller

Viewpoint

By Michael Miller
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Red-Light Cameras: Fines Before Fairness

A hundred more automatic red-light traffic cameras are up around Long Island, 50 in Nassau County. The warning signs that are supposed to encourage drivers to be very careful aren’t up yet. Revenue is up.

Laws that try to alter driver behavior are not necessarily a bad thing, although setting it up so that private parties and local governments make significant money off it blurs motivations and can weaken public trust. If safety is really the first concern, and not tricking or confusing drivers into committing fineable offenses, then there are other things that can and should be done to make the camera program fairer, more logical and more open.

In 2011, Nassau County officials released the first accident statistics for 40 of the first 50 intersections with cameras, grouped by how long cameras were present. Traffic accidents were reduced between 12.3 and 15.5 percent. This is consistent with statistics from other places, but it really depends on how one counts “accidents.”

The disturbing “T-bone” crash, when a driver enters an intersection and is hit broadside, is definitely an accident, often caused by driver confusion. In studies attempting to include increases in small fender-benders and rear-end hits that occur when drivers caught at a yellow light slam on their brakes, the rates even out. At best, the statistical safety evidence is a mixed bag.

In fact, there is evidence that extending times for yellow lights beyond minimum guidelines can reduce accidents, including rear-enders.

Available statistics don’t break down how many tickets at each intersection are issued for making either illegal or slow-rolling right turns on red lights. Images often aren’t clear about exactly what has happened in these situations. In the initial Nassau County statistics, one intersection (at one of the entrances to Roosevelt Field) showed an 86 percent increase in crashes. In 2010, that one intersection generated $1.7 million in fines. County traffic officials moved to improve the vague signage that made some drivers believe that rights-on-red were okay.

It is likely that there are other intersections where most revenue is generated from right-on-red violations and not from dangerous light-running. This wasn’t part of the public conversation when the program was instituted in 2009. Making very slow rolling stops before turning right may be a technical violation, but it’s not clear to what extent it’s a significant safety hazard. But it sure generates revenue.

There are other things the county could do to make intersections safer. They could stop adding to sign clutter at intersections (“Congratulations…”) and make people aware of exactly what the rules are and when. They don’t. They want violations. I know that county traffic officials have said that it’s about safety, but elected officials have consistently said something else.

County Executive Tom Suozzi was criticized for including revenues from red-light camera ticket fines in his proposed 2008 budget, 18 months before the state legislature approved their use in Nassau. In 2011, County Executive Ed Mangano strongly linked the survival of county youth programs in his budget with approval in Albany for additional automatic intersection cameras. In 2012, County Comptroller Maragos visited with editors at the Mineola offices of this newspaper chain and emphasized the importance of red-light camera expansion to stabilization of county finances.

Recently, American Traffic Solutions, the Arizona-based, Goldman Sachs-backed company to which Nassau County outsources its red-light camera program, was outed for lobbying, secretly and successfully, against Illinois legislation to extend school speed zone hours.

ATS spent $90,000 on Albany lobbying in 2012. They have repeated the drills a thousand times, and they know what sells to the public: It’s safety, not money. Safety, not money. Repeat it enough and you’ll start to believe it.

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Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: millercolumn@optimum.net