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Traffic Cameras

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When a car runs a red light in Suffolk County, does it make a sound?

Yes. If you listen closely, you’ll hear your wallet being pried open.

Beware the daring driver who goes through a yellow light to traverse a busy intersection. It’ll happen so suddenly. You’ll see a quick flash of white light, followed by a sinking feeling: You just ran a red.

Flash forward weeks later when you get slapped with a $50 ticket. Let’s not forget the $30 administrative fee. And don’t be late with it, or else you could be hit with additional late fees of $25 or more.

Suffolk County’s Red Light Safety Program just feels unjust. Ask any Long Islander about it, and you’re likely to get that eye-roll or an angry tone.

It’s a “money grab,” they’ll say. And they already pay a ton in taxes to live here.

Remember that story over the summer about the Centereach man who used an expandable pole to push the cameras toward the sky? It attracted much attention and numerous shares on social media. To the public, he was known as the “Red Light Robin Hood.” In a follow-up interview with Newsday after his arrest, the man, Stephen Ruth, defended his actions.

“It’s abusive and it’s got to stop,” Ruth told Newsday reporters. “My taxes have doubled. … They keep taking more and more money from people. When is enough, enough?”

GOPers in the Suffolk County Legislature say they feel like Ruth. Some Republicans are calling for greater scrutiny in the program, and some flat out disagree with it all together. A press conference last week singled out the county’s red light program, dubbing it a cheap attempt at building revenue on the backs of everyday citizens.

We agree with that notion, but we do not outright disagree with the program’s premise. Those drivers who purposely whiz through a red light deserve that ticket they’ll eventually receive in the mail, but we don’t feel the same way about drivers slapped with tickets for not stopping enough before a turn at right-on-red intersections. Cameras don’t capture enough of the oncoming traffic in an intersection, in our opinion, to appropriately determine whether or not a right on red was executed safely, and that — to us  — is a textbook money grab.

The county says red-light-running is “one of the major causes of crashes, deaths and injuries at signalized intersections.” The action killed 676 people and injured an estimated 113,000 in 2009, the year before the county program was enacted. And nearly two-thirds of the deaths were people other than the red-light-running drivers.

But while it is a noble intention to stop speeders or those who flagrantly disobey the rules of the road, and to prevent fatalities from occurring, we agree with the notion that the measure is a money grab. We agree the county should stop and yield to the concerns of many and evaluate how to make the program better.

Some Suffolk County elected officials are calling the red light safety program a scam. File photo

Five years after red light cameras were installed in Suffolk County, North Shore officials are still examining the program’s effectiveness, as well as its purpose, by asking: Are the cameras a means of enhancing public safety or simply another source of income for the county?

On Tuesday, Oct. 6, Republican Suffolk County Legislators Tom Muratore (Ronkonkoma); Robert Trotta (Fort Salonga); Leslie Kennedy (Nesconset); Tom Cilmi (Bay Shore); Tom Barraga (West Islip) and Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst) addressed some of their concerns when they met to discuss potential reforms to the Red Light Safety Program.

The program was written into law in 2009 and installed red light cameras at up to 50 intersections in Suffolk County. The cameras were installed to capture the backs of the drivers’ cars, as opposed to the drivers themselves. Under the program, drivers who run through a red light face a $50 traffic violation but do not receive points against their license.

Prior to the press conference, Muratore said county Republicans were left in the dark regarding details surrounding the program, such as the duration of various lights. While there are three-second and five-second yellow and red lights, Muratore said it was impossible to identify which lights resided where.

Despite this, Muratore said he found the program relatively reasonable. The legislator said he voted in favor of the program, thinking this new technology would help avoid traffic accidents. But what he disagreed with, he said, was the county’s manipulating of administrative fees associated with the program.

“If you’re getting tens of thousands of tickets and you increase the fee by $5.00, you’re getting half a million to a million dollars, maybe more,” Muratore said in an interview. “That’s just money-grabbing right there.”

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) did not respond to requests seeking comment.

After Tuesday’s press conference in Riverhead, Trotta said he thinks the “money-grabbing” surpassed Bellone’s proposal to increase the administrative fee. He said the county has $2 billion worth of debt and claimed the program is nothing but an opportunity to collect money to help offset that.

According to Trotta, if the camera “does not produce 25 tickets in a 16-hour period, then the county has to pay $2,136.”

The money is a fixed monthly fee the county must pay the program’s contractor, Baltimore-based Affiliated Computer Services Inc. According to an amendment to the program, the county must also pay an additional $17.25 for each paid citation generated from such enforcement system.

While public safety is a concern for many county officials, Trotta said he does not think there is a safety issue. Some Suffolk County residents also oppose the cameras, so much so that Stephen Ruth of Centereach used a pole to turn the cameras away from the road at various locations. He was arrested in August for tampering, and some hailed him as a “Red Light Robin Hood.” The defendant called the program “abusive.”

Muratore said the issue is not really people running red lights, but drivers’ timing when turning right on red. He said drivers should not receive a ticket for turning right on red when it is permitted, provided they came to a full stop: “They forget they have to stop and then go. There’s no three second rule or five second rule, it’s a full stop.”