Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano and administration officials have fended off criticism of their unpopular speed camera program with a simple rebuttal: It’s about safety.
But a Newsday computer analysis of traffic accident data shows that speed cameras are monitoring dozens of areas with no apparent speeding issues, giving credence to the perception that county officials rushed the launch of the program to help fill a budget deficit with the $80 speeding tickets.
When looking at crashes that occurred during daylight hours on a weekday — when school might be in session — and where speed was reported as a factor, Newsday’s analysis found no such accidents between 2009 and 2013 in 56 of the 76 school zones the county has said it is monitoring with speed cameras.
There were a total of 23 speed-related crashes in the other 20 monitored locations over the five-year period Newsday analyzed.
Even when looking at all types of crashes that occurred at any time of the day or week, eight of the 76 school zones did not see a single accident during the five years Newsday analyzed.
Meanwhile, Newsday’s analysis found 10 school zones where at least one accident was reported that are not on the list of locations the county is monitoring.
The state legislation that authorized the speed camera program required county officials to review crash history in determining where to place speed cameras. Mangano spokesman Brian Nevin said county officials did review crash history, but he did not provide any records detailing that review after repeated requests from Newsday.
In response to questions for this story, Nevin said: “The bottom line is that people are excessively speeding in school zones.”
Revenue generated by the program shows that the cameras have caught a lot of drivers, who must exceed the limit by more than 10 miles per hour in a school zone in order to be ticketed. According to a December 3 county financial report, the program has raised $16.6 million since it was launched in September, or the equivalent of more than 200,000 tickets.
The money from those tickets helped county officials lift a three-year freeze on employee pay raises, but the county’s haphazard approach to selecting camera sites has fueled criticism that the speed camera program was focused more on money than safety.
Even local lawmakers, who voted unanimously to implement the speed camera program, have recently come out against it in the face of increased public anger.
Nassau’s Democratic minority legislators gathered outside the Theodore Roosevelt Executive and Legislative Building in Mineola just before the November election and called for the program to be scrapped. And last week, Presiding Officer Norma Gonsalves (R-East Meadow), the leader of the county legislature’s GOP majority, called the program “poorly implemented.”
“The Republican caucus is very unhappy with the speed camera program,” Gonsalves said in a statement. “It is clearly time to reassess the entire program.”
The criticism from lawmakers continued even after county officials installed additional signs to warn drivers of the school zones and reduced the hours the cameras operate to times when children usually arrive and leave school, 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. on school days.
Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an organization that supports speed cameras and has funded several studies about their use, said winning public support for a speed camera program is not “rocket science.” Rader said using accident data to identify a safety issue is one way of winning public support.
“If the public understands that you are trying to solve a safety problem, they will support you,” Rader said. “If they believe that you are trying to solve a budget problem, it is a recipe for trouble.”
The state legislation Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed in June authorizing the speed camera program called for cameras to only monitor school zones.
A review of transcripts from state hearings, and requests with state lawmakers, did not uncover the sort of accident analysis conducted by Newsday. In addition, Nassau lawmakers were not presented with such an analysis of school zone accidents before approving the speed camera program on the local level.
Months after Nassau County implemented its program, the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a non-profit advocacy group that supports speed cameras, released a study showing 40 percent of the county’s 37 fatal pedestrian accidents in 2012 happened within a quarter-mile of a school — the maximum size of a school zone allowed under law.
However, the Tri-State analysis looked at accidents within a quarter-mile as a bird flies, so none of the crash reports for the 14 accidents indicated that they occurred within a school zone, Newsday found after reviewing the database the nonprofit used for its analysis. In addition, officers determined that only one accident in the Tri-State analysis was speed-related.
For its analysis, Newsday mapped each of the 76 school zones county officials published in a list of camera locations released in October. The analysis based the length of the school zones on a review of images of traffic signs in the area taken by Google, or, when such imagery was not available, on the maximum size of school zones allowed by law. Since the county released its list in October, officials have said they added more school zones to the program but have declined to provide the locations.
Newsday matched the school zones to a statewide New York Department of Transportation database of 2.6 million accidents that occurred between 2009 and 2013. The same database can be used by local agencies, including Nassau County, to identify dangerous stretches of road.
Had lawmakers reviewed accident data, they may have insisted that the program not limit speed cameras to school zones.
According to the New York DOT data, there was only one fatal crash in Nassau County’s monitored school zones that occurred during weekday, daytime hours – and speed was not listed as a factor.
That 2009 fatal crash happened near Theodore Roosevelt Elementary School in Oyster Bay. A 90-year-old woman’s car went off the road, through a parking lot, onto a beach and into a tree “for unknown reasons,” according to the report of the crash.
Frequent crashes were reported at some of the school zones Newsday reviewed, including eight zones with more than an average of five crashes per year during weekday, daytime hours. Speed was rarely a factor, though.
For instance, an average of 23 accidents per year occurred during those hours on the roads abutting Harbor Hill Elementary in Greenvale during the five years reviewed, none of them speed-related.
The database also shows there are 379 stretches of road at least one-tenth of a mile in length that each had more speed-related accidents than the most crash-prone school zone, where only two such accidents occurred.
That includes six portions of the Southern State Parkway and two of the Northern State Parkway that each had more speed-related accidents between 2009 and 2013 than all 76 of the school zones Newsday analyzed combined. The crashes on those eight stretches alone led to 159 injuries and two deaths.
Richard Retting, a traffic engineering researcher with 30 years of experience who has conducted several studies of speed camera programs, reviewed Newsday’s methodology and said it was a reasonable approach.
While Retting said examining crash data is an important step in selecting camera enforcement sites and winning public support, he said it doesn’t necessarily need to be the only justification for ensuring motorists obey the speed limit.
“I have 5 children of my own,” Retting said. “There’s something to be said for wanting to make school zones places where children are not exposed to speeding vehicles, whether there has been a crash there or not.”
Hundreds of residents gathered in the Cantiague Elementary School auditorium in Jericho in October to demand that the county remove the speed camera in front of the school. Gary Strauss, a local homeowner in attendance, said during the meeting that the school zone had no known history of accidents.
Strauss was right. The Cantiague Rock Road school zone is one of eight where Newsday found no reported accidents, of any kind, between 2009 and 2013.
Strauss, a member of the Cantiague Rock Road Speed Zone Fairness Coalition, the group that organized the public meeting, said the results of Newsday’s analysis don’t surprise him.
“That is because of what we have been stressing all along,” Strauss said. “This is a stretch of road that has always been safe.”
Newsday’s analysis did find that some cameras have been placed on roads with historically high numbers of accidents – just not in the portions of those roads with the highest numbers of accidents.
For example, there were 81 speed-related accidents – resulting in 80 injuries and five fatalities – on the nine miles of Jerusalem Avenue from Hempstead to North Amityville. However, none of the accidents occurred in the two school zones with cameras on that road: Turtle Hook Middle School and Schwarting Elementary School.
Newsday also found 10 school zones where at least one accident occurred that the county has not said it is monitoring. For instance, a quarter-mile stretch abutting XXXX school saw XXXX accidents during the five years of data analyzed, including one speed-related accident.
Nassau legislators WILL ON MONDAY consider legislation proposed by the legislature’s minority Democratic caucus that would end the camera program.
Strauss said his group, one of several protesting the camera program, supports cameras placed in areas where there are safety problems. But he said placing them in areas with no accidents makes it look like the program is about money.
“If they did it the right way, it could have improved safety,” Strauss said. “But now if they don’t change quickly, they are going to have a hard time convincing the public that this program is for safety.”
Brad Trettien and Brian Jingeleski of News12 and Alejandra Villa of Newsday contributed reporting.