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

HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. —

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.

Revenue Generator

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.

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