Speed-enforcement cameras: An idea whose time in New York has yet to come, somehow

Pedestrians and traffic in New York City. (Nicole Lee via Flickr)
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As long as you can manage not to crash your vehicle into something or someone, you can more or less go ahead and ignore the speed limit in Bushwick, the Upper West Side or East Harlem, where in March, a tractor-trailer killed Amar Diarrassouba, who was six.

You can speed in Midtown too, traffic conditions permitting. 

In each of those precincts, police officers issued 10 or fewer speeding tickets in 2012, according to traffic enforcement data compiled by the office of Councilman Stephen Levin of Brooklyn.

It's a little harder to get away with speeding in the Williamsburg-based 90th precinct where, in early March, a speeding driver broadsided a livery car, killing passengers Raizy and Nathan Glauber, both 21, and their baby boy, who was delivered by emergency cesarean at Bellevue Hospital Center and died shortly afterward, but your odds are still good.

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In that precinct, in 2012, police officers issued 74 tickets for speeding.

That number represents an 82 percent increase over 2011, when officers issued just 13 tickets. That's a lot lower than the 198 tickets issued in Brooklyn's 61st Precinct (Sheepshead Bay) or the 4,130 issued in Queens' 110th (Elmhurst).

It's not clear why the NYPD's traffic enforcement is so erratic. But there's little question that it's not comprehensive.

In January, Michael Bloomberg admitted as much himself, when a man named George called into his Friday morning radio show to complain about the "menace" of cyclists, and the mayor responded, "We don't enforce the bicycle laws as much as we should, you're right there. But we don't enforce the automobile traffic laws or the pedestrian laws as well as we should. The police have a lot of things to do. They focus on the most serious things and when have time, do these others."

NYPD spokesman Paul Browne did not respond to a request for comment, but Richard Retting, a longtime traffic safety expert with a firm headed up by former city traffic commissioner (Gridlock) Sam Schwartz, has one theory as to why the city's traffic enforcement is so inadequate: September 11.

"Traffic is becoming a stepchild of homeland security," Retting said. "That is inevitable, when you have such a paramount concern about terrorism ... and there are only so many resources, so many cops."

At any rate, Bloomberg has proposed a solution to the issue of traffic enforcement, and it's one that transit and cycling advocates have signed onto: automated enforcement. That means anti-speeding and red-light cameras.

In recent months, advocates and city officials have pointed to the Glauber and Diarrassouba tragedies as Exhibits A and B in the case for cameras that enforce traffic rules by snapping photos of scofflaws and penalizing them accordingly.

In March, Council Speaker Christine Quinn, the Democratic front-runner in this year’s mayoral election, joined a press conference calling for speed cameras. Police Commissioner Ray Kelly sent a supportive letter.  And two councilmen sponsored a resolution calling on Albany to authorize more red-light cameras for city intersections.

And yet, thanks to opposition in the Republican-and-breakaway-Democrat-controlled State Senate, a bill that would allow the city to install up to 40 cameras at intersections near schools in New York City has stalled out.

Political blowback, to say nothing of public outcry, so far, have been negligible.

“What became clear in this budget push was the fact that both legislators and the public aren't aware of the rampant speeding problem in the city, nor how little we are currently able to do about it,” said Nadine Lemmon, the Tri-State Transportation Campaign's Albany legislative advocate.

Explaining Albany's inability to grant such a seemingly modest request, State Senator Marty Golden, Republican of Bay Ridge, told the Post that he would be open to speeding cameras, if only the technology were “proven.”

Golden didn’t respond to a request for comment, so it’s unclear what he means by “proven.”

In 2012, the Cochrane Collaboration, a nonprofit organization that reviews randomized controlled trials on issues pertaining to health, issued a report entitled “Speed cameras for the prevention of road traffic injuries and deaths.”

After reviewing 35 studies “To assess whether the use of speed cameras reduces the incidence of speeding, road traffic crashes, injuries and deaths,” the researchers concluded that “speed cameras are a worthwhile intervention for reducing the number of road traffic injuries and deaths.”

More precisely, of the 28 studies that investigated speed cameras effect on crashes, “All 28 studies found a lower number of crashes in the speed camera areas after implementation of the program.”

According to a separate Cochrane Collaboration review, “five studies in Australia, Singapore and the USA all found that use of red-light cameras cut the number of crashes in which there were injuries. In the best conducted of these studies, the reduction was nearly 30%."

Traffic deaths are increasingly being seen, or at least contextualized by concerned officials, as a public health problem.

Every year, nearly 1.2 million individuals are killed in car crashes, and at least 20 million are injured.

The Cochrane Collaboration calls it a "pandemic."

Here in New York, New York Academy of Medicine president Jo Ivey Boufford says unsafe drivers pose "a public health threat."

Last year, 274 people died in traffic accidents in New York City, the majority of them pedestrians.

The transportation department said a third of those deaths were caused by speeding.

In Europe, speed cameras are so widespread that developers have begun selling technology to outwit them.  

Here in the United States, traffic enforcement cameras are far less common.

New York City has zero speed cameras and 150 red-light cameras, the latter of which are up for reauthorization in 2014.

Nationwide, more than 500 municipalities have red-light cameras, but on the question of speed cameras, Retting said, "We are lightyears behind other countries."

He attributes this to driver ambivalence.

"Drivers speed routinely and don’t want to get ticketed for it," he said. "At the same time, the communities in which the same drivers live fight vociferously to slow drivers down and to keep kids safe."

Opponents of traffic enforcement cameras typically make two kinds of objections: One, that such cameras are merely revenue-raising mechanisms, a complaint, it should be noted, that is also made about speeding tickets of the more conventional variety.

"A camera does nothing to take a reckless speeder off a road," Robert Sinclair, AAA New York's spokesman, told me. "That's what visible law enforcement can do. This ex post facto enforcement is not something that's going to prevent speeding. ...On its face, it seems like revenue enhancement, pure and simple."

That thesis is now being tested in a New York court.

The other complaint is that such cameras infringe on privacy.

Legal scholar Eugene Volokh argued against the latter in a 2002 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, writing that “the problem isn’t privacy" since the cameras "are in public places, where people’s faces and cars are visible to everyone."

Also: "the red light cameras are less intrusive than traditional traffic policing. The law recognizes that even a brief police stop is a 'seizure,' a temporary deprivation of liberty. When I was caught on the camera, I avoided that. I avoided coming even briefly within a police officer’s physical power, a power that unfortunately is sometimes abused. ... And while cameras aren’t perfectly reliable, I suspect that they can be made more reliable than fallibly human officers—so I may even have avoided a higher risk of being wrongly ticketed.”

Twelve states have gone so far as to outlaw the use of speed cameras, and nine have forbidden the use of red-light cameras.

In New York State, speed-camera proponents will somehow have to overcome the opposition of drivers like Sinclair and also the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, which represents 50,000 active and retired police officers, and has come out strongly against the cameras, arguing that they will deprive police officers of jobs.

“Speed cameras are no substitute for live policing," said P.B.A. president Patrick Lynch, in a statement. "Many speeders are unlicensed, some are operating under the influence and sometimes they are fleeing crime scenes or carrying weapons. Cameras let all those dangers slip by. Money spent on speed cameras would be far better used to improve public safety by hiring more fully trained police officers to interdict speeders."

“People who charge that it’s an either/or, that we need more officers versus speed cameras, I think that’s preposterous, that’s a false choice,” countered Paul Steely-White, the executive director of Transportation Alternatives. “Would you say that it’s an either/or to have real firefighters or automatic sprinklers in buildings?"

Advocates will also have to convince recalcitrant state senators like Golden.

“I’m hopeful that the State Senate will stop obstructing these life-saving measures," said Steely-White.

"Marty Golden is a rare New York City public official who does not support speed cameras yet," he said.

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