Staten Island Advance | February 17, 2008
By Maura Yates
Just over a year since the number of red light cameras citywide was doubled to 100 -- with 10 of them at Staten Island intersections -- the technology has been credited with a big drop in injuries and fatalities, as more and more drivers slam on the brakes instead of speeding through reds to avoid a $50 ticket.
Island cameras were increased from five a year ago and they are responsible for a 32% percent increase in fines issues -- from 2,004 to 2,756.
Each of the cameras record an average of 29 red-light violations every day, with just over 20 tickets issued from those violations, based on pictures of the drivers' license plate. And the program has generated $45 million in revenue for the city, including an additional $4 million since the increase.
But while injuries from the most serious "T-bone" right angle crashes are down 24 percent at intersections wired to the cameras, studies show that rear-end collisions are more common at those spots when drivers brake abruptly before the yellow light turns red.
To address that problem and help drivers gauge how much time they will have to clear the intersection before getting a ticket, City Councilman Vincent Ignizio (R-South Shore) introduced legislation last week that would require the city to install countdown timers at every intersection with a red light camera.
The timers would show how many seconds remain before the light turns yellow.
"What happens a lot in my district is that people either stop well before the yellow, or they speed up and hit the car in front of them, or they run the red," Ignizio said.
The proposed law would "empower people with information as to whether the light is going to change so they can determine whether they can get through the intersection safely," he said.
The measure seems unlikely to gain approval from the city's Department of Transportation. Among the concerns over the plan is the possibility that such countdown timers might encourage drivers to speed up to beat the light. And, critics have argued, drivers maintaining a safe speed and not tailgating should have plenty of time to come to a stop at the yellow light.
DOT officials said they would not comment on the legislation. But the agency is currently testing the technology citywide as part of a pilot program to make streets safer for pedestrians. The Staten Island test corridor will be Hylan Boulevard from Tysens to New Dorp lanes.
"Red light cameras are an important tool for improving public safety," said city Department of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan. "Our studies show that the number of drivers who run red lights has fallen dramatically at intersections that are monitored and that translates into fewer accidents."
While drivers are more likely to be scared straight at intersections known to have cameras, the 100 currently in use represent just a small fraction of the city's more than 12,000 intersections with traffic lights. Another 200 dummy cameras citywide are wired to flash when cars pass through a red light, but no tickets are issued.
A total of 384,993 tickets were sent out last year citywide to drivers caught "red lighted."
The fines are treated like a parking ticket. Since the camera can't identify who ran the red, no points are issued.
Critics of the program say the cameras are a cash cow for the city, but the fine here is a bargain compared to parts of California that charge more than $300 per infraction. Much of the income from tickets covers the cost of the equipment. Functioning cameras cost $120,000 each, and dummy cameras cost $15,000.
Not All in Use
There are currently 175 functional cameras throughout the city, but only 100 are in use at any one time to meet the legislative limit. Those 100 are rotated to keep drivers guessing which ones are snapping photos, and which ones are just flashing. Staten Island is currently home to 10 functioning red-light cameras and three dummy cameras.
Statistics show that more than half of all fatal accidents occur at just 10 percent of the city's intersections, said Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, a public transit, pedestrian, and bicyclist advocacy group.
"With 1,200 red light cams, there would be enough to cover ... the most dangerous intersections where those injuries and fatalities are occurring," he said.
"Overwhelmingly it's a very effective way to reduce injuries and fatalities and make our streets safe, especially considering the police are just overtaxed and don't have the time or resources to be everywhere all the time." But New York State law limits the number of cameras operating at one time.
DOT officials said the program will likely be expanded as legislative approval permits.
And the red-light cameras aren't the borough's only high-tech traffic enforcement equipment. Speed boards, which clock drivers' speed in key spots like Henderson Avenue in Randall Manor and Forest Hill Road in New Springville, broadcast a driver's speed in big yellow digital numbers high above the road, to let motorists -- and everyone else watching -- know how fast they are going.
But could these speed readers someday zap a picture of your car for a speeding ticket?
The DOT is looking at the feasibility of introducing such a program, currently used with success in Europe, as well as states including Ohio, California and Washington, D.C., but state approval is needed before it could be enacted here.
TAG: Sally Goldenberg contributed to this report.
Maura Yates covers transportation news for the Advance. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.