New York takes a small step toward speed-camera network

Pedestrians and traffic in New York City. (Nicole Lee via Flickr)
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At 4:30 am on Saturday morning, Albany finally gave New York City something it had been requesting for ten years: a few speed cameras.

Once the governor signs the legislation, the city will be able to install cameras that record the license plates of speeding cars in 20 school zones citywide and ticket the offending drivers (a school zone is defined as the quarter-mile radius surrounding a school).

State Senate co-leader Jeff Klein, who sponsored the bill, called its passage in the Senate “a tremendous victory.”

The victory may turn out to have set a meaningful precedent. But in practice, the "tremendous" win is only an incremental one.

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While only 20 school zones will be covered by the new cameras, there are 1,700 public schools in New York City, not to mention all the private and parochial ones.

The hope among traffic-safety advocates who want the cameras is that this five-year pilot program allowing New York State’s very first speed cameras will pave the way for a broader system citywide.

“Once parents realize, 'hey there’s this great option, but the city isn’t going to be able to bring it to me for who knows how long,' I think there’s gonna be a lot of pressure from all over the city,” said Juan Martinez, the general counsel for Transportation Alternatives, which lobbied hard for the bill.

Right now, drivers can speed with relative impunity in New York City.

As I reported earlier this year, in 2012, police issued 10 or fewer speeding tickets in Bushwick, the Upper West Side, Midtown, and East Harlem, the precinct where a tractor-trailer killed six-year-old Amar Diarrassouba in March.

Richard Retting, a traffic safety expert, told me that traffic enforcement, post-September 11, “is becoming a stepchild of homeland security.”

Speed cameras don’t require much personnel (which is the reason they're opposed by some law-enforcement unions) and their effectiveness is proven.

A 2012 Cochrane Collaboration review of existing studies found that “speed cameras are a worthwhile intervention for reducing the number of road traffic injuries and deaths.”

Nevertheless, passage of even the limited pilot-program bill in Albany was no sure thing.

“It was quite a surprise,” said Nadine Lemmon, of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, which also lobbied for the legislation.

The Assembly’s transportation chairman, Rochester’s David Gantt, was concerned about civil liberties and the Senate’s Marty Golden, who is close to the police unions, said he shared their concerns that the speed cameras would take away police jobs.

Ultimately, it was the narrowing of the legislation’s focus to school zones that enabled its passage.

“This was not an easy bill for the legislature,” said Martinez. “There were quite a few legislators who had real reservations about doing any program. So ... the bill evolved to be limited in scope.”