Hardly a day goes by when I don’t witness at least one automobile, pedal-to-the-metal, blazing down a New York City street or avenue at what looks to be a dangerously high speed. It’s both infuriating and terrifying to see a pedestrian—or a bicycling commuter like me—come within inches of a bone-crushing crash with a fast-moving, two-to-three ton automobile driven by an angry, arrogant or impatient driver.
A proven deterrent to fast-moving drivers is speed safety cameras. The cameras use the same radar and laser technology as police officers to measure how fast an automobile is going. If the driver exceeds the speed limit by more than 10 miles per hour, the camera captures an image of the car’s license plate which then gets reviewed by a Department of Transportation technician. If it is determined the driver was in fact speeding, a Notice of Liability gets issued.
A city that prioritizes the lives of a majority of its people over the demands and convenience of automobile drivers would not hesitate to saturate every city street, avenue and highway throughout the five boroughs with speed cameras that operate 24 hours a day. Motor vehicle crashes killed 200 people in New York City in 2018. Of those, 114 were pedestrians and 10 were cyclists. More than 60,000 people were injured, many of them in ways that will forever haunt their lives. During a period from July 2012 to January 2019, 887 pedestrians were killed by automobiles on New York City streets and it’s likely speed was a factor in many of these incidents.
A driver moving at 40 miles per hour (MPH) needs 300 feet to perceive, react and brake to an unexpected event – twice as far as a driver at 25 MPH, who only needs 150 feet according to data in a 2018 report from the city’s Department of Transportation (DOT) says. The city’s speed limit was lowered to 25 MPH in 2014 as part of Mayor Bill De Blasio’s Vision Zero effort.
But because of New York state law, there are just 140 speed cameras in all five boroughs, and they can only issue tickets to drivers who speed within 1,320 feet of a school; on a street abutting a school building, entrance or exit; and within one hour before, after, or during school hours, or a half hour before, after or during school activities. The cameras shut down during the summer months when school is out.
That despite the fact that the overall number of people killed or severely injured by crashes in school zones with speed cameras declined by over 21 percent in the period after the cameras were activated in 2014 according to the New York City Department of Transportation.
As advocacy organization Transportation Alternatives Co-Deputy Director Marco Conner told me in a conversation a few days ago, “The basic function of street cameras should not just to be protect areas around schools, it should be to make our streets safer period.”
Right now, because the state has precedence, even though there might be a higher crash location two streets removed from a school zone—a camera can not be placed there, despite the fact these are intersections that students, parents and others use to cross the street, Conner pointed out.
Five out of every six New Yorkers who are killed or severely injured by an automobile are struck at times or places where state law prohibits the use of speed cameras to deter speeding according to the DOT.
And although collisions are most common during daytime hours, when congestion is at its worst, the likelihood of a collision resulting in an injury or fatality increases during late night or early morning hours—outside school hours, when the cameras are off.
We know speed is determinant of injury severity and life or death in crash. A pedestrian who gets hit by a vehicle traveling at 30 MPH is twice as likely to be killed as a pedestrian struck by a vehicle travelling at 25 MPH according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.
Weirdly enough, the NYPD’s union, NYC Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association has voiced opposition to expanding the speed camera program, saying only police officers can take a drunk, unlicensed or uninsured driver off the road or spot other criminal activity. NYCPBA has also called the program a “money grab” even though camera citations are limited to $50 while a ticket from a police officer can be as high as $600.
While NYCPBA is right about cameras not catching drunks and other criminal behavior, it would be almost impossible for police officers to replicate the sheer volume of fines and potential deterrence offered by speed cameras. In 2015, speed cameras caught more than one million speeders. NYPD officers caught just 135,000.
Common sense dictates drivers would probably think twice before going full throttle it if they knew city streets were covered with speed safety cameras. Blanketing the five boroughs would also neuter any fancy phone waze-like apps or gadgets that alert drivers about a speed camera zone. Awareness of speed cameras is a proven speed deterrent, but when there are so few cameras in operation and technology alerts drivers to their presence, people often just choose different routes.
But just like a plethora of other issues impacting our city’s transportation network— the speed camera program is at the mercy of the state. That said, this past September, Mayor Bill de Blasio, Council Speaker Corey Johnson, and Governor Andrew Cuomo effectively bypassed inaction by a then Republican-controlled state Senate and not only renewed the existing camera program, but expanded it to from 140 to 290 locations.
There are also basic exemptions in the state constitution that say a locality has the power to make laws for the well being, health and public safety of its citizens. Clearly, if there ever was an issue of health and safety at stake, the continued carnage on New York City streets begs for bold and brave leadership. In the meantime, there is hopeful new legislation on the horizon in Albany that could take the program to the next level.
Earlier this month, New York State Senator Andrew Gounardes and Assembly Member Deborah Glick have introduced a bill that would expand the program to more than 750 cameras. The bill would also allow cameras to operate from 6 a.m. until 10 p.m.— and throughout the summer months. Not only that, the new legislation would also expand the radius that cameras are allowed to clock speeders to within a quarter mile radius of schools.
But as Streetsblog reported, this isn’t Deborah Glick’s first time at the safer streets rodeo. In the past, she’s proposed even more ambitious speed camera legislation—allow speed cameras at all 1,700 city schools—but that idea got squashed by the then-Republican-controlled Senate. Now with the state Senate controlled by Democrats, the chances a camera expansion will pass are much higher. It’s not clear if the governor will be on board.
While any expansion—most especially from 140 cameras to 750—would be a huge boost for the safety of millions of pedestrians and cyclists who traverse city streets daily, it’s still not enough. City and state leaders should get behind the idea of an even more extensive network of speed cameras that fully blankets all city streets.
Cody Lyon is a New York City-based journalist.