speed cameras

Liam Quigley

Following an expansion of the program in July, more than 500,000 speeding tickets have been issued by the city’s speed cameras. Most people who get caught don’t do it again, But not all.

While Jumaane Williams was running for Public Advocate, he found himself in hot water for repeatedly driving past city schools well over the speed limit. Williams eventually admitted his driving was dangerous and agreed to take a safety course, and has only gotten one speeding ticket since.

But Williams’ 28 tickets hardly rank him among the most dangerous drivers in the city. A handful of drivers have racked up more than 100 tickets each, yet have escaped any consequences beyond a hit to the pocketbook.

The city’s expanding network of school-zone speed cameras has drawn cheers from safety advocates who point to data showing a sharp reduction in death and carnage once the cameras are installed and the $50 tickets reach the mailboxes of the owners of the offending vehicles.

Following an expansion of the program in July, more than 500,000 speeding tickets have been issued by the cameras, which are operated by the Department of Transportation (DOT). Most people who get caught don’t do it again, according to DOT data.

But what about the drivers who don’t slow down?

One car has accumulated a staggering 125 of the violations since 2014 and remains the second most ticketed vehicle for the offense despite having been off the road since May.

A months-long investigation led to a Nassau County address linked to the vehicle and a man who claims his employer paid all the tickets. It’s one of a limited number of cases where thousands of dollars in fines have proven ineffective at changing behavior and highlights a blindspot of the city’s Vision Zero initiative. City lawmakers and advocates are hoping to address the issue with a bill that would rely on data provided by enforcement cameras to get the worst drivers off the road and into a safety course.

While the majority of vehicles registered in New York City have only been issued one speeding ticket by the cameras, the top ten worst offendors have racked up more than 1000 of the tickets as a group. Their vehicles range from a two-decade old Buick to almost-new Lexuses and BMWs.

Also topping the list are two vehicles with commercial license plates, which brings greater challenges in identifying who the reckless drivers are since the vehicles are more likely to be used by multiple people.

Since 2007, Roland Colavito has worked for Royal Waste Services, a private trash hauler based in Queens. His work as a salesman for the company has earned him glowing testimonials from clients of the waste company, one of the largest in the city.

During his time at Royal, he drove a Hyundai Santa Fe bearing license plates which were tagged flying past city schools 125 times since 2014.

Interviewed at his Nassau County home, Mr. Colavito passed the blame to his employer, and said that he drove the car to meet with clients, such as the student union at Queens College.

“I never got anything from the Department of Transportation,” he said. “My job paid whatever tickets I got. So if you have an issue you gotta go to the job.”

Numerous calls to Royal Waste were not returned, and laws prohibit the Department of Motor Vehicles from revealing the registered owner of the Hyundai.

“Yeah, that car is gone,” Colavito added.

One newer vehicle seen parked in Colavito’s driveway has racked up 28 tickets since April for being driven too fast past many of the same schools as the Hyundai, like PS 295 on Jamaica Avenue in Queens Village, where drivers usually travel below the 25 mph limit.

The cameras don’t issue tickets until drivers exceed 10 mph of the posted speed limit, so a car would need to be driven 36 mph past the school to trigger the camera and a $50 fine.

All told, the two cars have 155 school-zone speeding tickets, with the most recent from January 2. Even if they hadn’t been paid, the city would only be able to impound the vehicle until the debt was settled, and the driver would be free to hit road with the same dangerous habits.

While it remains unclear who paid the for the violations (which total more than $7,000), or if Colavito was behind the wheel when each one was issued, he raised a question that advocates hope to have an answer for soon.

“Are all the tickets paid?” he asked. “So then there’s nothing to talk about. You couldn’t boot my car if the tickets are paid. That would be illegal. Am I right?”

A Park Slope tragedy

In March of 2018, Dorothy Bruns blacked out, accelerated through a red light and drove into a crosswalk, killing two young children and seriously injuring a pregnant woman who later lost her unborn child.

“For obvious reasons, that was like a real gut-punch to our whole community,” Park Slope Councilmember Brad Lander said of the crash.

Bruns, who took her own life months later, had a history of school-zone speeding violations and was involved in at least one hit-and-run, information that Lander says could be used to prevent future crashes where drivers fit a similar profile.

“So what would it look like to use that information in order to try to intervene with these very reckless drivers before they injure or kill our neighbors?” was the question the incident posed, according to Lander.

Conversations around the idea led to the introduction in June 2018 of the Reckless Driver Accountability Act, which would require drivers who accrue five or more moving violations in any 12-month period to attend a safety course or risk having their vehicles impounded.

Blythe Austin is a lawyer and member of Families for Safe Streets, a group largely composed of people who have lost loved ones to crashes. As tragedies pile up, its ranks expand, and the group has successfully fought for legislation to hold drivers accountable for their actions. She was at the table from the beginning of discussions after the Park Slope crash more than a year ago.

“The thought was, let’s figure out the definition of a dangerous vehicle, a dangerous driver, owner of that vehicle. And then let’s target them with the goal of getting them to stop driving dangerously,” she said.

Under the proposed legislation, drivers like Colavito or Bruns would receive a letter after their fifth speeding or red light ticket accrued within a rolling 12-month period. That way, Austin says, drivers would have a chance to slow down before the city would take further action.

“So it’s not about punishment, it’s about stopping this dangerous behavior on our streets to keep everybody safe,” she added. “And in order for that to have teeth, you have to enforce it an a way other than fines. Because these people don’t care about fines.”

If the driver doesn’t slow down and keeps racking up tickets, the bill would allow the city to boot their vehicle and force them to take the safety course. While a final version of the bill is in the works, about 20 thousand cars would be subject to the proposed rule, or about one percent of all cars registered in New York City.

Despite overall progress under Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Vision Zero campaign to reduce death and injury in crashes on city streets, 2019 was a particularly bloody year. A total of 122 pedestrians were killed on city streets last year, and more bicyclists were killed on city roadways in 2019 than in any year since 2000.

Last November, an off-duty NYPD officer named Garmen Chen was killed in a harrowing crash as his speeding car sent sparks flying on the FDR and seriously injured two of his friends. Within hours, reporters found that the 25-year-old had a history of speeding past city schools.

The recent bloodshed has advocates clamoring for expedited passage of the proposed legislation. Despite garnering words of support from Mayor Bill de Blasio, the bill has not moved forward in the city council since it was introduced.

Austin says things are taking so long in part because of the infamous struggle between city and state bureaucracy. The Department of Motor Vehicles handles vehicle registrations and licensing, and would need to be in conversation with city agencies for the legislation to work as intended, Austin added. The bill also requires careful legal review because any government seizure has potential Fourth Amendment implications.

“We know that one of the reasons that dangerous driving has not been targeted effectively up until now, and these most dangerous drivers are falling through the cracks, is because the cracks are between different government agencies.”

“And whenever that happens, there’s a tendency to slam on the brakes, and skepticism by city officials and by bureaucrats on whether you can do it legally.”

A final version of the bill is in the works, and sources involved say that the pace of work has been accelerating.

Details of the bill, like what agency will be responsible for impounding vehicles, are still being worked out. Another question that remains is how the legislation will deal with commercially owned vehicles, a challenge highlighted by two of the vehicles of the top 10 with the most tickets in the city.

One such vehicle is a 5,520 pound Toyota Tundra, caught driven too fast past schools, mostly in Brooklyn, 104 times since 2014. It’s also been issued parking summonses outside a Brooklyn address where a White Toyota Tundra appears in a Google Street View image, and a business address on the side of the truck leads to a Brooklyn Based Sheet Metal Company. Calls to the company were not immediately returned.

What potential risks do more cameras bring?

While the fine print will get worked out long before the legislation will see a vote, it’s clear that the city’s camera enforcement program will play a huge role in evaluating who the most dangerous drivers are.

This has privacy advocates like Albert Fox Cahn, head of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project at the Urban Justice Center, warning that enforcement methods first thought of as objective can do harm if not applied correctly.

“How are we monitoring for bias in where the cameras are located? And how do we make sure that we’re really using evidence-based policing to allocate these resources in a way that does more good than harm?,” he asked.

While the city’s speed camera system is still limited in scope, police reform activist and writer Josmar Trujillo echoed concerns about how they might be used in the future and where the data they collect will go.

“No matter how well intentioned some things can be, once you rub the genie lamp for enforcement, you’re not necessarily in control of how that genie is going to do things,” he said.

“Enforcement doesn’t always change behavior. Sometimes it’s just enforcement. Sometimes people find a way around enforcement.”

And after the course … ?

Some questions remain about what city officials will need to do about drivers who take the safety course but continue driving recklessly. If people are willing to cough up thousands to cover the speeding tickets, what’s to stop them from returning to the same behavior after taking a safety course? And what about those who have the cost of their tickets covered by employers?

They are questions those who’ve worked closely on the bill have kept in mind, but won’t be specifically addressed by the current proposed legislation.

“Probably some people will go through the course and continue [speeding], and they don’t want that. They’re taking about what things can you have happen to people,” Austin, the lawyer said.

She added that most people notified about their dangerous driving habits will likely adjust their behavior and avoid more tickets, in the same way that most drivers who get one school-zone speeding ticket don’t get another.

“Ideally, the vast majority of people are never subjected to impoundment, because they go to the course and they go, ‘oh my goodness, I had no idea, what a wake-up call,’ and they never get another ticket.”

Editors note: The author of this story was involved in a June 2016 incident not related to this story in which he was accosted by a Royal Waste Services driver who was later arrested.