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.