A Long Island Lesson In Red-Light Cameras: Is Connecticut Next?

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.

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