Some call it Big Brother, others call it a cynical cash grab, but now that the two bills authorizing Nassau and Suffolk counties to install red light cameras at their 50 most dangerous intersections have passed the New York State Legislature this week, drivers can call it a reason to obey traffic signals.
The bills, which are expected to be signed into law by Gov. David Paterson, were approved after eight years of haggling and backroom political shenanigans. And while the cameras will help line county coffers when the money is needed most—Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi hinged non-profit organization funding on this and two other revenue-boosting bills in Albany—installations are not expected to begin until October, at the earliest, officials say.
It works like this: Automated cameras take photos of a car’s license plates after it passes the red light and sends the data to authorities, who then mail a $50 fine to the car’s owner. Drivers who ignore three or more tickets will not be allowed to renew their vehicle’s registration.
“Motorists go through red lights creating a great danger, especially with the speed that they’re looking to beat the lights, so if there’s something that will diminish that or deter that type of behavior, we’re certainly in favor of it,” says Nassau Police spokesman Detective Sgt. Anthony Repalone. He added that the technology could be used in investigations.
“Say a suspect’s vehicle fled in a certain direction at a particular time, there’s ways of isolating that information to capture it, which certainly could assist us in perhaps identifying a suspect’s vehicle,” Repalone says, noting that police have not yet thoroughly researched the issue.
Details about camera locations are scarce. “It’s only going to go on County traffic lights in unincorporated areas of the county,” says Ian Siegel, deputy Nassau County executive for parks and public works. “Places that are villages or cities are not going to get it,” he explains. He estimates the cameras will earn the county about $3 million this year and $12 million next year. Suffolk expects to net $3 million to $4 million after the initial start-up costs.
A spokesperson for Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy says that while the most dangerous intersections are already well-known, releasing a full list of potential red light camera locations would remove the element of surprise. Nassau did not make a list immediately available either. Both counties will now have to put out a request for proposals for companies to install the cameras.
In addition to budgetary concerns, it was the need to reauthorize New York City’s red light cameras—the plan is technically still a pilot program, although it’s earned the city $89 million since 1994—that created the opportunity to expand the program to LI. NYC was granted another 50 cameras, upping its count to 150.
“It would have been very difficult to pass a bill for New York City while at the same time denying these photo monitoring systems for all the other municipalities that ultimately received them,” says Assemblyman Charles Lavine (D-Glen Cove), one of the red light camera’s lead proponents. Yonkers, Buffalo and Rochester also will be allowed to install the cameras, but reauthorization will be required in five years, he adds.
One of the biggest hurdles turned out to be Assemblyman David Gantt (D-Rochester), the transportation committee chair, who first decried the cameras as an invasion of privacy, but later proposed his own version of the bill—one that benefitted a company lobbied for by his former colleague, according to The Buffalo News.
There was also considerable debate concerning tickets being sent home to drivers who don’t deserve them as a result of a line obscured by snow or making way for emergency vehicles, according to lawmakers. “It’s just a snapshot for a moment in time, it doesn’t give you the whole picture,” says Assemblyman Joe Saladino (R-Massapequa), who voted for the bill despite those concerns because he did not want Nassau’s non-profits to lose funding.
Those with Orwellian worries also compromised. “I don’t like the idea of automation interfering in our life, but in public safety if it has a proven track record, it’s something we should try,” says Assemblyman Harvey Weisenberg (D-Long Beach), noting that the law authorizes the counties to install the cameras and the state is not involved with placement.
Two state senators from LI refused to approve the measures, including Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport) and Sen. Kenneth LaValle (R-Selden), who maintains that “it’s another intrusion into our privacy.” A third, Sen. Owen Johnson (R-West Babylon) voted for the Nassau bill and against the Suffolk bill.
As for photo-enforcement’s effectiveness, it can increase rear-end crashes, reduce side-impact crashes—where cars are most vulnerable—and reduce overall injury crashes perhaps by as much as 25 percent, according to studies reviewed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Now if only there were such a thing as a Stop Sign camera.
—Stefanie Baum contributed to this story.