City officials say they have led to fewer injuries and crashes.
2,000 Cameras will be watching how you drive in New York City
NEW YORK — Cameras have stood guard outside New York City schools for years to keep children safe from speeding cars.
Now the city is sharply expanding the use of such cameras to nearly every neighborhood. It is part of a far-reaching effort to enforce speed limits, including on busy streets with no schools and at times when classes are out — at night, on holidays and during summer vacation.
The result will be the nation’s largest urban network of automated speed cameras, with a nearly tenfold increase to more than 2,000 cameras deployed in 750 areas within a quarter-mile radius of a school, effectively blanketing the city.
“It’s going to mean you’re going to have to drive at a safe speed in New York where our fellow New Yorkers are walking, biking and using the streets,” said Polly Trottenberg, the city’s transportation commissioner.
But critics are accusing the city of “policing for profit,” saying the speed cameras are simply a way to raise money at the public’s expense.
When a camera catches a vehicle going more than 10 mph over the speed limit — 25 mph on most streets — a $50 fine is mailed to the registered owner.
“New York City is going to become just one big speed trap,” said Shelia Dunn, a spokeswoman for the National Motorists Association, a grassroots advocacy group that opposes speed cameras. “Making every street in New York into a school speed zone is not really going to protect people.”
Even some supporters of the cameras said the city needs to do much more to protect pedestrians than simply adding more cameras, such as redesigning streets to make them safer.
Others have questioned whether the campaign to broaden the school-camera program, which was approved by the state Legislature, was misleading and went too far.
“They’re not saying we’re going to crack down on speeding,” said Greg Smith, 55, a finance executive on the Upper West Side. “They’re putting it under the pretense of, ‘We’re increasing school safety.’ And I think that’s disingenuous.”
He added, “Who would be against keeping our children safe from speeding drivers?”
Across the country, the spread of automated traffic-enforcement cameras has drawn protests from many drivers and has fueled a backlash — especially against cameras that have been widely used in hundreds of places to catch drivers running red lights, which far outnumber speed cameras.
Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas recently signed a new law banning red-light cameras, joining at least seven other states that have done so. New York was the first city in the country to roll out red-light cameras in 1993, but they are a relatively modest presence on streets, operating at 150 intersections.
Speed-camera programs, which date to at least the 1980s, have nearly doubled in the past decade to 141 cities and municipalities, including Washington, Chicago, Denver, Portland and Seattle, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Many cameras are restricted by state laws to specific areas and hours.
Speed cameras reduce crashes as well as injuries and deaths, and research data have also shown that they act as speed deterrents, said Jenny O’Connell, a program manager for the National Association of City Transportation Officials. Most drivers who are caught once do not get caught again.
“These cameras are really, really effective, and could be even more effective if states would allow cities to expand their deployment, both in terms of number of locations and number of hours in use,” she said.
But Dunn said speed cameras can actually contribute to gridlock and fender-benders when drivers, upon spotting a camera, suddenly slow down. The cameras also provide a false sense of reassurance because they do not eliminate dangers from other obstacles, such as jaywalkers or cyclists running red lights.
“It’s an illusion of protection. It cannot prevent an accident or prevent someone from being hit by a car,” she said. “It’s everybody’s responsibility to follow the safety rules.”
New York began testing speed cameras on a limited basis in 20 school zones in 2013, and the next year was authorized by the state to expand them to 140 school zones. Now 239 speed cameras are operating in 169 school zones.
City transportation officials oversee the program, selecting camera sites and reviewing violations before fines are mailed. It is part of a three-year, $176 million contract with a company, Verra Mobility, to install and maintain enforcement cameras that also catch vehicles that run red lights and block bus lanes.
State law had required speed cameras to be placed within a quarter mile of a school on streets where there was a building entrance or exit. The camera hours varied by school, but generally ran from one hour before to one hour after the school day.
Even this limited use was too much for critics. Last year, the program became tangled in partisan politics when the Republican-led state Senate refused to renew it unless it was tied to other measures opposed by the Democrat-controlled Assembly.
The cameras effectively went dark last summer until Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat, stepped in with an executive order to reactivate them.
This year, with Democrats now controlling both chambers, state legislators voted not just to renew the program, but to make it far more expansive. For the first time, cameras can now be installed along high-crash streets even if there is no school. Camera hours will more than double and operate year-round, from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. every weekday.
State Sen. Andrew Gounardes, D-Brooklyn, who led the campaign, said the changes allow the cameras to protect students and families walking to and from schools, and cover activities outside of regular school hours, such as play rehearsals and summer camps.
Around schools that already have speed cameras, the number of crashes dropped an average of 15% to 2,442 a year, down from 2,870, according to a city analysis of data from 2012 to 2016. During that time, fatalities fell an average 55%, dropping to eight from 18 a year; severe injuries fell 17%, to 134 from 162 a year.
The cameras also led to a reduction in speeding, with an average of 104 violations issued each day for a typical speed camera in the first month compared with 51 violations a day by the end of the first year. More than three-fourths of vehicle owners who were fined did not receive a second violation.
More than 5.2 million violations have been issued — totaling more than $228 million in fines — through last year.
City officials have authorized the installation of new cameras and expect to have 300 cameras operating in 215 school zones on July 11 when the expansion takes effect. They plan to add between 40 and 60 cameras a month through the end of 2021.
Still, though the cameras have made school zones safer, the city as a whole may be getting more perilous.
Traffic fatalities have decreased overall since 2014, but they have recently started creeping up again. This year, 97 people have been killed in crashes as of June 27 — 14 more than the year before — including 50 pedestrians, 12 cyclists and nine motorcyclists, according to the city.
“We have a public health crisis with traffic fatalities,” said Marco Conner, a top leader at Transportation Alternatives, an advocacy group, which has called for the city to redesign streets with safety improvements such as protected bike lanes and pedestrian islands.
Donna Ganson, a retired marketing executive, said a speed camera could have prevented the crash that devastated her family a decade ago. Her husband, Hutch, was walking their daughter to the subway in Park Slope, Brooklyn, when he was struck by a speeding car in a crosswalk. He survived but suffered severe brain injuries that have left him permanently disabled.
“It would have made a difference,” she said. “I think they really do change people’s behavior — not everybody — but people don’t want to get a ticket so they slow down.”
On the Upper West Side, a new traffic camera has been placed on a stretch of West End Avenue that is packed with families and older pedestrians.
Olga Klein, 75, said she welcomed the new camera because she had been cut off by cars racing to turn through a nearby intersection. “You get so shocked you don’t move,” she said. “It’s very scary.”
Linda Corman, 67, a freelance writer, said that while she was wary of any surveillance camera that could lead to a Big-Brother state, in this instance, “This is a good use of it.”
“It’s not just school zones that need it,” she said. “Any pedestrian is vulnerable to cars that are going too fast.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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