6:54 PM EST, February 18, 2012
HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. —
The white-haired man insisted that he'd come to a full stop at a local intersection before he made a right turn on a red light. But the video on the computer screen said otherwise.
He sat Wednesday at a desk with a clerk at the Nassau County Traffic and Parking Violations Agency — the nerve center of the county's red light camera enforcement operation that has been operating since August 2009 — as he contested a ticket he'd received in the mail. The ticket showed photos of his car's rear end before and after it went through the red light, as well as a blow-up of the marker plate.
"I stopped," he said.
But the desktop screen showed a continuous 12-second loop of his car making the right turn, never stopping, at 5 mph or so.
"That's me? No, I came to a stop."
"Show me where you stopped, sir," said Nancy Montenegro, the clerk. The car on the screen rolled through the turn again and again. "Unfortunately, you didn't come to a full stop."
"You sure you got the right picture?" he said. "I stopped for three seconds."
A faint smile came to Montenegro's face and a sympathetic tone to her voice: "At this point, you will need to talk to the judge."
"Oh, the hell with it," the old man said. "Who do I make the check out to?"
This had been a review session, preliminary to a scheduled hearing in a courtroom-like chamber with a traffic prosecutor and a judicial hearing officer — either an active or retired judge. But this hearing now was called off because the man paid a $50 fine plus a $15 administrative fee to Nassau County.
The ticket didn't result in "points" against his driver's license or affect his insurance rates. By state law it's counted not as a moving violation but rather like a parking infraction.
You might want to remember this little episode, because it could start happening in Connecticut — if the General Assembly as a whole agrees to pass a red-light camera enforcement bill now being pushed by a number of prominent Democratic legislators and local officials from the state's larger cities.
It's a perennial bill that has failed to date, but now the advocates enjoy the vocal support of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and they are saying they think 2012 will be their year.
459,000 Camera Tickets
Not very many accused red-light violators in Nassau County ever request a hearing at the violations agency office in Hempstead to fight their camera-initiated tickets.
Of 459,000 red-light camera citations issued in Nassau County during 2011, 85 to 90 percent were paid without contest, while 10 percent or so were dismissed for one reason or another — including evidence that a car that ran a red light was part of a funeral procession, or was making way for an emergency vehicle, said David Rich, assistant executive director of the traffic violations agency.
Rich and his boss — a gruff ex-New York City cop and former judge, Executive Director John G. Marks — showed a Courant reporter through their offices and hearing room last Wednesday. They said the program has saved lives. They say the number of accidents involving serious injuries and death are down, and add that the number of violations has been decreasing since the first year. Rich said the decrease in violations means the program is achieving its goal: "Driver behavior has improved."
Wednesday's visit was arranged by Charles Territo, vice president of communications for Arizona-based American Traffic Solutions, Nassau County's vendor for the red-light enforcement program. Territo said he thinks that the more the Connecticut public knows about the operations of one of its systems in another jurisdiction, the more it will accept such a program in Connecticut.
The various arguments for and against adoption of such a program in Connecticut have been reported in this column in past years and recent weeks, and they will continue to be during the coming weeks of debate about this year's bill. Today's column won't attempt to go through them all in detail. The purpose here is to outline the way things work under a red-light camera enforcement system similar to what might be proposed in this state.
American Traffic Solutions and another red-light camera vendor, Redflex, have been lobbying heavily in favor of the Connecticut bill. ATS spent $84,000 on lobbying last year alone. As proposed last year, the bill would have given 13 towns and cities with populations of at least 60,000 the right to establish a camera enforcement program at intersections.
The fine would have been at least $124 per violation, which proponents said was logical because that's the typical penalty a driver pays when a police officer tickets him or her for running a light. But that's not how New York does it. If a cop tickets you there, it costs $230, comprising a $150 fine and an $80 state surcharge, the Nassau County officials said.
This year, in hopes of improving the chances of passage in Connecticut, legislative proponents say the new bill, once it's drafted, will call for a penalty in the same range as Nassau County's — something like $50 to $75. The new bill would treat the tickets like parking infractions, the way Nassau County does.
As representatives from New Haven and other cities are now doing in Connecticut, Nassau County officials spent several years trying to persuade the New York legislature to permit them to use the cameras to catch red-light violators. The Long Island officials said they wanted to join nearby New York City, which has run its own camera enforcement program since the 1990s.
Democrat David Gantt of Rochester had blocked them for years as leader of the New York assembly's transportation committee — but he finally relented in the spring of 2009, saying of the cameras: "I still don't like them," but "people have asked for them because of holes in budgets."
That's been one of the persistent issues raised by opponents of the red-light cameras here. They say that camera enforcement is at least as much about raising government revenue as it is about saving the lives of pedestrians, bicyclists and motorists at busy intersections.
Proponents of the bill, including the legislative transportation committee's co-chairman, Rep. Antonio Guerrera, D-Rocky Hill, and Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra, have both said they are not interested in a bill as a revenue generator above the cost of running the program. "It's about saving lives," Guerrera said at a press conference Thursday.
Nassau County officials say the same thing. On their website, they call it "a public safety program."
"Our goal is to reduce the number of red-light runners, thus decreasing the number of violations and their potential for crashes and injuries on our roadways. … The program may generate revenue for the County in its early stages, but the County expects revenue to decrease as drivers improve their driving habits and begin following the law."
But even at the county's lower fine of $50 plus the $15 administrative fee, it does pretty well for itself — almost $20 million in net revenue. That money is used specifically for health and social service programs, Rich said.
Here's the breakdown: In 2011, Nassau County collected $27.8 million in fines and administrative fees from the red-light camera operation. The county pays American Traffic Solutions a fee to lease each camera — about $4,900 per camera per month — for a total payment of $8.3 million for the vendor to run the program last year, Rich said.
It remains to be seen how Nassau County's heavy revenue from the red-light cameras will enter into Connecticut legislative proponents' discussion of how much lower the fine should be set in the 2012 bill, a year after they had tried to make the penalty at least $124 per violation.
How It All Works
Here are the nuts and bolts of Nassau County's operation, as explained by officials there: 152 cameras were installed from August 2009 to March 2011 at 50 intersections chosen because of high incidence of accidents in the past. Some intersections have four cameras, covering all directions, and others two or three.
The cameras are installed on poles 100 feet or so in advance of the traffic light and white stop line, to shoot images from behind the vehicles. Embedded in each lane, just before the stop line, are two electronic sensors the size of hockey pucks, one a few feet behind the other.
When a vehicle passes over the sensors while the light is red — not while it is green or amber — the digital cameras are triggered. One is a video camera, which monitors traffic every day and night; on receiving a sensor signal, it captures a 12-second video from its continuously running video loop, beginning six seconds before the vehicle crosses the stop line and ending six seconds after that mark. The second camera, aided by a strobe flash that's also on the pole, takes still shots of the rear of the car, including the license plate, at two points: behind the white line and beyond it, both while the light is red.
The video and images are transmitted electronically to American Traffic Solutions in Arizona, where employees conduct two reviews to determine if the image quality is sufficient, and to verify that a violation has occurred. If so, the images are forwarded to the violations agency in Nassau County, where clerks like Montenegro review them for a third time on their computer screens. If they verify a violation, they click "accept" on the screen, and the Arizona vendor mails a ticket called a "notice of liability" to the vehicle's registered owner.
That screening process threw out 253,000 of 712,000 red-light "events" recorded by Nassau County's cameras during 2011, leaving the 459,000 incidents for which tickets were issued, Rich said.
The ticket, as mentioned above, shows the license plate and images of the car before and after it ran the red light. It contains information including: date and time, approximate vehicle speed, how long the amber light was on, and how long the light was red at the time of the violation. Because images are captured from behind, the driver isn't visible on the video and stills.
The ticket also has a 13-digit number, as well as a 4-digit personal identification number, which can be entered into a box on the website http://www.DriveSafelyInNassau.com to view the video of the alleged violation.
Review of that video on a home computer appears to dissuade most people from mailing in a coupon to request a hearing to contest the ticket.
Those who appear for hearings in Hempstead are offered a review of the video with a clerk before they see the judicial hearing officer. Some haven't viewed it at home and are seeing it for the first time — as was the case with the elderly man on Wednesday — and give up the fight after watching it.
But others go forward to a hearing, at which the judicial official views the video evidence, hears both sides, and then rules. More often than not, it goes against the alleged violator, officials said.
Other than claiming extenuating circumstances, such as a funeral or avoiding a firetruck, the owner of a ticketed vehicle also can get out of a fine by documenting a claim that he or she wasn't driving at the time of the violation. An "affidavit of non-responsibility" is required, along with supporting documentation such as a certified copy of a police report that the vehicle or plate had been stolen.
One thing that the Nassau County experience shows is that red-light cameras result in tickets for driver behavior that many police officers often would disregard, such as slow roll-throughs when turning right on red.
The cameras make no exceptions. They activate when a car hits the sensors during a red light, even if it's in the middle of the night and no other cars are near the intersection.
To give an idea of how many more tickets are issued because of the automatic equipment, the annual total of 459,000 camera-initiated red-light tickets in Nassau County is more than twice the 170,000 issued by police for all varieties of traffic violations, Rich said.
He and his boss, Marks, make no apologies for this uncompromising approach. Clerks reviewing videos generally will not issue tickets if a video shows that a motorist stops at a light with the front wheels beyond the white line — as Marks puts it, "you made the effort" — but they are instructed to give no leeway if a vehicle fails to stop completely while turning right on red.
The law says a stop is the "complete cessation of movement," Marks said, and people need to take it seriously.
"In Nassau County the [camera] locations were chosen by the high incidence of crashes," Marks said. "I try not to use the word 'accident' because if something is caused, in my mind it's a crash and not an accident. Accidents will happen, but a crash is something that's avoidable, and if you follow the law you will avoid a crash."
Courant senior information specialist Cristina Bachetti contributed to this report.
Jon Lender is a reporter on The Courant's investigative desk, with a focus on government and politics. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, 860-241-6524, or c/o The Hartford Courant, 285 Broad St., Hartford, CT 06115 and find him on Twitter@jonlender.
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