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Red Light

The front cover of the 2015 Red Light Safety Program Report.
The front cover of the 2015 Red Light Safety Program Report.

By Victoria Espinoza

The results are in for the 2015 Red Light Safety Program Annual Report — the most recent report to date — but there are still questions to be asked. The report, released in April, showed in 2015 a total of $31 million in gross revenue was collected from the program for citations issued from the start of the program in 2010 but paid in 2015 — a drop of some $1.9 million from the previous year.

However, an entire section is missing on accident data, which in years past indicated how many accidents occurred from right angles, rear ends, accidents that involved injury, what intersections they occurred at and more.

“It’s a disgrace,” Suffolk County Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) said in a phone interview. “They say it’s coming — but they won’t even tell us who prepares the report.”

Trotta is not the only person to raise this concern.

Personal injury lawyer David Raimondo, based in Lake Grove, agreed not knowing what company prepares the report is a red flag. He has worked on several injury lawsuits having to do with red light camera intersections and has filed a Freedom of Information Law request to discover what company creates the current annual reports on the program. Just last month he called for a federal investigation into the program.

Suffolk County Legislator Rob Trotta goes over legislation to suspend the camera program. Photo by Phil Corso

“We don’t know who makes the report, they [Suffolk County government] claim the data used is correct, but I’m challenging that right now because I don’t think their data is accurate,” he said.

The county executive’s office did not respond to requests for comment. Every annual report has the Suffolk County seal on the cover as well as the seal of the county’s office of Traffic and Parking Violations Agency. All services in maintaining, operating and managing the red light cameras are done by Xerox, a corporation that entered into a contract with Suffolk County. Xerox provides a monthly invoice to the county for contractual requirements, and according to the study was paid $9.4 million that year. But it’s still unclear which entity condenses the raw data and creates the annual reports.

Raimondo also took issue with an article from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety referenced in the 2015 report. “Red light cameras installed at intersections reduced the number of fatalities due to crashes at these intersections … there was a steep increase in fatalities at intersections that removed red light cameras,” the report stated.

The article also included data from 57 cities throughout the country between 1992 and 2014, comparing trends in fatal crash rates in those cities with trends in 33 cities that never had cameras.

The lawyer called the article “propaganda,” and said he has worked with many scientists and engineer experts who confirm red light camera programs do not reduce fatalities.

Another problem with the Suffolk County study, Raimondo said, is it does not include data on accidents involving bicyclists or pedestrians.

“Every single intersection with a camera and a crosswalk needs a report,” he said.

Red light cameras are placed in two types of intersections: New York State intersections, where a state road meets a state, county or town road; and non-state intersections, where a county road meets a county or town road. According to the report, intersections are chosen based on where the cameras would yield the highest safety result, but Raimondo doesn’t buy that.

“It’s an insult to the residents.” — Rob Trotta

“They’re putting them in areas with the highest volume of people who don’t want to go to court and can afford to pay the ticket,” he said. “They’re targeting middle class people. It’s a real racketeering operation, it’s enterprise corruption.”

Trotta echoed the sentiment.

“It’s a sham,” he said. “It’s the equivalent of a 63 percent tax increase on resident’s general fund tax, except this way the Suffolk County executive can say he didn’t raise it — but in actuality he did and it’s absurd. He [Steve Bellone (D)] thinks the people of Suffolk County are idiots. It’s an insult to the residents.”

According to the report released last month analyzing the 2015 data, 352,472 red light camera fines were paid in 2015, including payments immediately after first notice of a ticket and court-related fines. This has led to more than $17.6 million in gross fine revenues for the year ($19 million in 2014 on 380,809 fines paid). These fines and fees are deposited directly into a Suffolk County comptroller’s account, according to the report.

Some areas across Suffolk County saw more red light camera incidents recorded and tickets issued in 2015, but others stayed at a steady rate or saw a decrease.

The study details how many incidents a red light camera intersection tracks in a certain year, as well as how many tickets are issued from those incidents.

In 2015 in Huntington Station on Oakwood Road, a huge 73,217 red light camera incidents were noted, with 3,741 tickets issued, compared to 9,773 incidents noted and 602 tickets issued in 2014. Lake Grove had 86,343 incidents with 4,636 tickets issued in 2014, and the next year that number jumped to 106,145 incidents yet saw a drop in tickets to 4,435. In East Setauket on Route 347, more than 1,000 incidents were recorded than the prior year at 37,594, however 45 fewer tickets were issued at 1,838. On Miller Place Road, 117,016 incidents were recorded in 2014, with 7,055 tickets issued, and in 2015 there was a drop in incidents tracked at 113,915, with 6,088 tickets issued.

Community members hold up signs on the corner of Route 25A and Miller Place Roadto bring awareness to the dangerous intersection following the death of a local 14-year-old boy. Photo by Kevin Redding

In response to a 14-year-old’s death at a busy intersection, the Miller Place community says enough is enough, and their voices were heard.

Residents from across the North Shore gathered March 26 to push for drastic safety changes at a dangerous road crossing at the intersection of Miller Place Road and Route 25A, where Nico Signore was struck by an SUV while riding his bike with friends last month.

Community members, including Signore’s family and friends, said the intersection should have a red left-turn signal to stop cars from entering the crosswalk when pedestrians are given the signal that it’s safe to walk to the other side. The group also agreed every corner of the intersection should be a no turn on red.

Community members hold up signs on the corner of Route 25A and Miller Place Road to bring awareness to the dangerous intersection following the death of a local 14-year-old boy. Photo by Kevin Redding

On Feb. 23, Signore pushed the crosswalk button, waited for the go-ahead signal to bike across the intersection, and was struck because the northbound driver had a green left turn arrow.

According to Miller Place resident Tammy McGuire, rally organizer and close friend to the Signores, the disastrous layout of the intersection gave the driver an invitation to run him over.

“There’s no reason Nico should be dead,” McGuire said, holding back tears. “We want someone to do something about it before more [people] die. Any parent or community member should want this changed.”

McGuire asked for a moment of silence among the crowd in memory of the beloved Miller Place lacrosse player, and 16-year-old John Luke, who died at the same intersection in May 2015, before leading the residents in a call and response chant.

“What do we want? Change,” the group shouted. “When do we want it? Now.”

Those in the crowd held up signs that read “make Miller Place safe again” and “we demand a full red before anyone else is dead” as passing cars honked in support.

“This corner has been a disaster — this whole section needs to be revamped and they need to do it immediately,” said Angela Campo, Signore’s former religion teacher. “The more time they take for studies, the more lives are lost. The Signore family has been destroyed and this community can’t take it anymore.”

A bear placed in memory if Nico Signore, who was hit by a car, holds a sign that says “make Miller Place safe again,” following the 14-year-old getting hit by a car at an intersection. Photo by Kevin Redding

She held up a sign containing a photo of her former student, adding that he was a beautiful and vibrant boy.

“He never got to live his life and the world is a much more awful place without him,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking.”

Kevin Cantwell, of Sound Beach, said Signore’s death should be the catalyst to get something done.

“Somebody has to figure this out because it’s a safety issue and there’s been proven deaths here,” Cantwell said. “Living in the community for 15 years — seeing this happen, seeing all the accidents, talking to the Miller Place fire department — this [intersection] is a nightmare.”

Back in October, months before Signore’s death, Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) reached out to the department based on concern from the Miller Place School District about hazardous traffic conditions at the same intersection, where a frequent number of car accidents occurred.

Signore’s death at the intersection prompted a recent request from state Sen. Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) to the New York State Department of Transportation to conduct an immediate pedestrian-bicycle safety study along the Route 25A corridor.

LaValle received word from the DOT that it will be making changed to the Miller Place intersection. The agreement included a red turn arrow on Miller Place Road.

“This will prevent cars from turning into the intersection while pedestrians are in the crosswalk,” LaValle said. “Additionally, the DOT will be installing new signs to warn drivers about pedestrians in the crosswalk.”

The changes, according to LaValle, will be implemented in two to four weeks.

“The DOT is in the process of developing long-term recommendations as well that, when implemented, will greatly improve the safety of this intersection,” LaValle said. “It is my deepest hope that these changes will prevent any future loss of life and lower the accident rate in this area.”

Community members hold up signs on the corner of Route 25A and Miller Place Road to bring awareness to the dangerous intersection following the death of a local 14-year-old boy. Photo by Kevin Redding

Stony Brook resident Danielle Algiere said even though she doesn’t know the Signore family, she came out for the simple fact that she’s a mother.

“It doesn’t matter that it happened in Miller Place, any local mother should be out here right now fighting for change,” she said. “He did everything he should’ve, and a flawed system is what got that child killed.”

The Signore family rejected the idea that the red light program had anything to do with Nico’s death, saying just the green arrow did.

“That’s not what this is about,” said Vincent Signore Jr., Nico’s older brother. “The intersection itself needs to be looked into and it’s nice to see a lot of people supporting this and caring about my brother. No family should ever have to go through this.”

All in attendance were encouraged to sign a petition, which help enacted the change, and another was passed around for the Rails to Trails project, to provide a safe, out-of-the-way path for residents to bike on. Also included in that petition was a request to dedicate a portion of the path running through Miller Place to Nico, an avid bicyclist.

“I met with the parents and they want to see a better situation in their community,” Anker said. “I hope if we move forward with Rails to Trails we’ll provide that safe place for our children to enjoy riding their bikes. The Signore family is close to my heart right now.”

This version is updated to include state Sen. Ken LaValle’s response from and about changes made to the intersection by the New York State Department of Transportation.

Stephen Ruth Jr. reached a plea deal for tampering with red light cameras, which will place him on probation for a year in lieu of prison time. Photo from Stephen Ruth Jr.

The merry adventures of Suffolk County’s “Red Light Robin Hood” continued last week as the Centereach resident who took matters into his own hands by tampering with red light cameras across county intersections struck a plea deal with prosecutors. The agreement reached will place him on interim probation for one year in lieu of any prison time.

Stephen Ruth Jr., who has been crusading against the county’s red light camera program since 2015 in an effort to “take the power back” by exposing what he considers government corruption and helping save Suffolk resident’s lives — for which he’s been called a domestic hero on social media — pleaded guilty in Riverhead Feb. 8 to a felony charge of criminal mischief.

Red light cameras along Route 25A, which is where some of the cameras were located that Stephen Ruth Jr. tampered with. File photo by Elana Glowatz

Since the county first installed red light cameras at busy intersections in 2010, which snap flashing photos of cars that run a red light or don’t come to a complete stop before turning right on red, they’ve been widely opposed across the county.

Ruth, who’s become the boastful face of the opposition — as evidenced by his smiley mug shot after first tampering with the devices in 2015 —has consistently called for the program’s repeal before the Suffolk County Legislature. He said the cameras and shortened yellow lights, “shortened to cause red light running for a profit,” are responsible for fatalities and accidents on the roads, have been illegally constructed without an engineer signing off on them, and are nothing more than a Suffolk County “money grab.”

“I was willing to go to jail from the beginning because I’m sticking up on behalf of those people who don’t have a voice anymore,” Ruth said. “These cameras are completely illegal and the [county] is not allowed to collect any money off them whatsoever … I knew this was going on and made my own news.”

Under the plea deal, Attorney David Raimondo said if Ruth successfully completes his probation, the felony plea will be dropped to a misdemeanor.

Stephen Ruth Jr.’s mug shot. File photo from SCPD

The 44-year-old real estate salesman may also have to pay up to $85,000 in restitution for all the cameras and equipment he’d left inoperable — a charge that will be challenged during a restitution hearing in April. Raimondo said he and his client will fight because “we believe that the entire red light camera system program is illegal and every single ticket issued from day one is a nullity.”

In the wake of the court ruling, Raimondo acknowledged that it was a good plea.

“This is something the county has to atone for and will atone for in civil litigation … it is not Stephen’s or his family’s cross to bear,” Raimondo said. “Why should Stephen sacrifice his personal freedom for what I think is nothing more than enterprise corruption?”

As Ruth has always worn his criminal tampering and obstruction of governmental administration as a badge of honor — even proudly demonstrating on his YouTube channel how he uses a painter’s extension rod to reach high-positioned red light cameras to turn its lens away from the road — Raimondo applauded his client for always taking responsibility for what he’s done.

“While I absolutely don’t condone or approve of any form of violence or destruction of property, I admire Stephen’s willingness to bring attention to the public the failures in the engineering behind the camera and how it’s affecting the taxpayers as a penalty and tax,” he said. “I [especially] admire that Stephen brought to the public’s attention the fact that the yellow light times have been shortened by the engineers because unfortunately people have been seriously injured and perhaps killed as a result.”

Red light camera. File photo

Ruth, in calling for a full investigation into the camera program to prove it’s an illegal operation, also wants to spotlight that the county continues to delete videos of any and all accidents that take place at intersections.

James Emanuel, a retired Suffolk County police officer, has dedicated himself to researching and testifying against the program, and is one of Ruth’s avid supporters.

“I’ve spoken to a lot of police officers who privately are a big fan of what he did,” Emanuel said. “You get to the point where you have to push back against the system; you just don’t have a choice. The guy saw a danger and his attitude was, ‘I’m gonna push back.’ He turned himself in every single time and he didn’t have to do that.”

In regards to Ruth’s plea deal, he said the county wants to prevent the program from being put on trial.

“There are thousands of infuriated people,” he said. “How would they find a jury of 12 people that wouldn’t find Stephen not guilty?”

Suffolk County Leg. Leslie Kennedy (R-Nesconset) said she understands Ruth’s strong feelings and acknowledges that red light cameras, although useful in some intersections, are overused and costly.

“I think what Ruth thought he was doing was making a statement, and he clearly did make a statement,” she said. “But you have to stay within the parameters of the law to make a statement that’s not going to get you in big trouble.”

A county report says Indian Head Road and Jericho Turnpike in Commack saw crashes increase since a red light camera was installed in 2014. Photo by Phil Corso

When it comes to Suffolk County’s red light camera program, Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) said he’s seen enough.

Trotta took to the intersection of Indian Head Road and Jericho Turnpike in Commack on Monday to call on the county to pull the emergency brake on its red light camera initiative and reevaluate, citing an increase in traffic crashes with injuries at that location.

The legislator picked the Indian Head Road red light camera location because the county’s 2014 Red Light Safety Program report showed crashes with injuries had gone up more than 100 percent there, making it a prime spot to prove Trotta’s point. The annual report said the yearly average of reported crashes with injury went from 8.7 before the camera’s installation to 19.3 after. The camera at that intersection was installed in January 2014, giving the 2014 report 11 months of traffic data to work with while comparing it to traffic patterns recorded over three years between 2007 and 2009.

Back in October, Trotta joined with other Republican lawmakers from Suffolk County to solicit input from the public about the red light camera program. At the time, he said residents alerted him about an increase in rear-end crashes since people were stopping abruptly at yellow lights to avoid being ticketed. The 2014 annual report on the red light program proved that notion.

According to the report, rear-end crashes increased by 42 percent since the cameras were installed.

“Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone has turned the residents of Smithtown into crash test dummies,” Trotta said on Monday. “This is just another example of [the Bellone administration’s] attempt to raise revenues through ‘taxation by citation.’”

However, the county’s Red Light Safety Program was enacted in 2009 — years before Bellone assumed the county executive position in 2012.

The annual report said the county collected $27.5 million in citation payments in 2014 and paid $9.5 million to the vendor to operate the program. The net proceeds were credited to the county’s general fund.

Backing up Trotta was Lawrence Zacarese, assistant chief of police and director of the Office of Emergency Management at Stony Brook University. In his remarks, speaking as a paramedic who has served Suffolk for decades, Zacarese said the Indian Head Road and Jericho Turnpike intersection was a dangerous spot in Commack and red light cameras only made it worse by forcing drivers to jam on their brakes at yellow lights in order to avoid tickets.

“People are confused,” he said. “The data shows that clearly.”

Paul Margiotta, executive director of the county’s Traffic and Parking Violations Agency, defended the county’s program while citing the report’s evidence of decreasing crash figures coupled with increasing trends of distracted drivers.

“The Suffolk County red light camera program has reduced crashes involving injuries at intersections with cameras and dramatically reduced right-angle crashes, which have the highest potential for serious injuries or even fatalities, by more than 20 percent,” he said. “Intersections with red light cameras on average are safer than intersections without cameras. Unfortunately, crashes throughout all of Suffolk County have increased, primarily because of distracted driving which has more than doubled since just 2012. It is clear that Suffolk County needs to do more, not less, to address traffic safety.”

At intersections where cameras were installed, overall crashes decreased by 3 percent, right-angle crashes went down by 21 percent and crashes involving injury decreased 4 percent, according to the county report.

Trotta’s pleas came on the same day repeat offender Stephen Ruth, of Centereach, was arrested for allegedly tampering with 19 of the cameras throughout the county.

Ruth was first cuffed in August for allegedly using a pole to reach several red light cameras in Ronkonkoma and turn their lenses away from the road and toward the sky. He was charged with criminal tampering and obstructing governmental administration.

Police said Ruth “cut wires and manipulated equipment” on 18 of those cameras between April 9 and 10. The 19th camera incident in question dates back to Jan. 18, police said, when Ruth allegedly cut down a camera pole at the intersection of County Road 83 and Old Town Road in Coram.

According to a police estimate, the incidents caused at least $25,000 of damage.

Ruth, 43, has been charged with two felony counts of second-degree criminal mischief. Hauppauge-based attorneys William J. Keahon and Craig Fleischer are representing him on those charges but are not commenting on the case, according to their law office.

Ruth’s arrest comes about a week after another man was arrested for allegedly tampering with red light cameras. Bryan Valentine, of St. James, has been charged with two counts of second-degree criminal tampering after police said the 26-year-old placed plastic bags over red light cameras at the signal in the Main Street and Landing Avenue intersection in Smithtown.

Attorney information for Valentine was not available.

In interviews Ruth — whom his supporters have dubbed the “Red Light Robin Hood” — has stood behind his actions. He has received praise from people who oppose the county’s red light camera program and say it is simply a money grab, as the county receives much revenue from the tickets generated.

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