NYC Aims to Make the Most of Its Handful of School-Zone Speed Cameras

Details concerning New York City’s first-ever speed camera program are scarce. To slow down as many speeding drivers as possible with the small number of cameras permitted by Albany, this is as it should be.

Walk to School Day in Harlem in 2011. Photo: ##http://www.flickr.com/photos/nycstreets/6238124316/##NYC DOT/Flickr##

On Tuesday, DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan joined Mayor Bloomberg at P.S. 81 in Riverdale, where 96 percent of motorists observed for a DOT school area survey were speeding. While a camera or cameras will presumably be deployed to slow drivers around P.S. 81, it’s one of 100 schools around which 75 percent or more of drivers speed [PDF]. To cover even a fraction of NYC school zones with a relative handful of cameras, flexibility is key.

Here’s Sadik-Khan, as quoted by WNYC and the Daily News: “The cameras are mobile so we’ll be able to move them around and address high-speed locations that may change over time. Any school where there’s excessive speeding will be fair game. One of the deterrents is that people don’t necessarily know where they are.”

The bill passed by the State Legislature limits NYC to the use of 20 cameras at a time. Cameras will be operable only from one hour before the school day begins to one hour after it ends, and from 30 minutes before to 30 minutes after school activities. A driver can go up to 10 mph over the speed limit without getting a ticket, and camera-enforced penalties will be capped at $50 — billed to the vehicle owner — regardless of how fast an offending motorist drives. No license points or insurance penalties will be attached. The legislature placed a five-year sunset clause on the program.

DOT told us that, since the system will be handled by a vendor, operational details have yet to be worked out. But a look at other mobile speed camera programs sheds some light on how they might work in NYC. Mobile speed cameras are often mounted in SUVs or other vehicles, and localities might or might not disclose where they are, or where they might be. Washington, DC, uses a combination of mobile and fixed cameras. The MPD posts a list of six dozen “enforcement zones,” most identified by block number, where cameras may be at any given time.

The Albany speed camera bill says NYC “may” install signage to notify motorists that cameras are in use, and warning motorists that they are about to enter a monitored school zone. So it could be that motorists know only that cameras will be used near schools.

Juan Martinez, general counsel for Transportation Alternatives, says warning signage would lessen the program’s effectiveness. “Because that tells drivers it’s ‘okay’ to speed a block later,” he says.

Then there is the question of decoys, which were recently deployed by police in Laurel, Maryland. Again, DOT said their use would depend on the vendor.

“It does all come down to the vendor,” says Martinez, “how the cameras will be mounted, how many cameras will be used, decoys, et cetera.”

A DOT spokesperson told us the 100 high-priority schools will be “candidates” for automated enforcement, echoing Sadik-Khan’s remarks about any school where there’s a lot of speeding being “fair game.” Martinez believes the less motorists know about where cameras are, the safer school zones will be.

“I imagine DOT will be cagey about which schools get the treatment — and I hope they are, because again the technology works best when drivers don’t know where the cameras are, so they expect them to be everywhere.”

  • Anonymous

    There is already signage for school zones, typically with large, bright yellow signs and often even blinking lights. Many have crossing guards. Yet with all of this warning, drivers often still speed dangerously. Enforcement is needed and welcomed.

  • Bronxite

    This pilot is pathetically limited. I think it’s ridiculous how our politicians are afraid to enforce the law. Only 20 cameras, during school hours, in school zones, and 10 MPH over allowed on a residential street!

    We need cameras in so many areas. Lining the Avenues in Manhattan to stop red light racing that has become so common. Residential and commercial streets off expressway exit ramps. Wide roads like Queens Blvd and the Grand Concourse. So many places where this could be an effective deterrent.

    This is absurd.

  • Daphna

    The more I read about how watered-down Albany had to make this bill in order for the NY State Senate to pass it, the more upset I am. NYC at least needs 100 cameras for those 100 schools around which 75% of drivers speed. NYC also could use thousands more cameras elsewhere in equally dangerous areas with chronic speeding. It is disappointing to find out that the cameras will only be on during the school day and during after school activities. So drivers can still speed through those areas evenings, nights and weekends with impunity.

    Language that NYC “may” notify motorists of cameras with signs is not a requirement and I hope NYC does not do that. Drivers need to be kept guessing. Uncertainly about camera placement will lead to a higher likelihood of drivers slowing down by all schools.

  • Mark Walker

    I share the frustration at the program’s limitations. But it is a significant step up because the question is no longer “should we have speed cameras?” but “should we expand speed cameras, and if so how much?” As virtually the only safety program that is self-financed, it doesn’t need funding to expand — only the political will to raise the number of cameras from 20 to 200 to 2000.

  • Joe

    Absolutely sickening. This is a crystal-clear example of a legislature openly allowing ongoing, blatant criminality to appease a powerful constituency. There’s no other conceivable interpretation.

    Every day, thousands upon thousands of criminal motorists are willfully and openly endangering the public by recklessly and flagrantly violating the laws of our state. Every year, thousands of our fellow citizens are killed and maimed by these criminals. The state legislature’s response? To handcuff and blindfold the authorities from taking anything more than the weakest conceivable action against the lawbreakers.

    What if you read that the Bank Robbers Lobby had gotten the state legislature to pass a law limiting banks to not more that one security guard…bank vaults could only be locked for a certain number of hours per day…only banks near schools could lock their front doors…and oh yes, any convicted bank robbers would have to pay a fifty dollar fine?

  • Ian Turner

    I think we should have signs at NYC entrances saying “Speed cameras in use in NYC”, just like we do for the speed limit. There are definitely cultural norms with respect to speeding which vary from place to place.

  • Anonymous

    I agree that this is an important first step.

    The limited placement (near schools) is not that big a deal. This is NYC. There are schools EVERYWHERE. The limited operating hours is more frustrating.

    Hopefully those two constraints will be relaxed in the future, along with the others.

  • Dave

    I’m astonished you can go up to 10mph over the limit without getting a fine. In Victoria, Australia, the threshold is 3km/h – about 2mph – over the posted limit and you get a fine. Not surprisingly, since the low threshold was introduced, there’s a lot less speeding!

  • Anonymous

    “The bill passed by the State Legislature limits NYC to the use of 20 cameras at a time” — This is a joke

  • Jonathan Hallam

    The British experience of speed cameras is that this approach is not very effective, and also significantly aggravating for drivers. ‘Average Speed Checks’ – which use regular cameras and numberplate recognition software to time particular vehicles over stretches of road basically eliminate speeding altogether. The only ‘problem’ is that such programs are quite expensive – not absolutely, but because they generate no offsetting enforcement revenue.

  • Daniel Winks

    Obviously these lives matter less to the political scum that keep stalling these cameras than allowing murderists to speed along to the next red light, so they can sit at that red a bit longer. Same for the murderists that are also against having actual accountability to keep and maintain a speed at or below the legal maximum.

  • Daniel Winks

    Why even have a threshold? The limit is a MAXIMUM. As in, “never, ever exceed this speed, ever”. Worried that trying to keep your needle right at the ‘limit’ might mean you totter over it a bit here and there? Then give yourself a buffer. Posted 30 MPH zone, make sure you’re aiming for 25 and you’ll never worry about ‘accidentally’ speeding.

  • Anonymous

    There has to be a threshold to account for the (real or imagined) margin of error of the speed camera. That said, 10 mph is ridiculous. You can go 33% faster than the speed limit without getting a fine!

  • Anonymous

    I heard that state legislators were worried that this is a “revenue generator.” If the technology allowed for a photo of the driver, I would take points on the drivers license over cash fines. This way the complaints can be directed at the insurance companies, and the drivers who are doing the speeding — not the car owner — gets fined.

  • Daniel Winks

    It’s 2013, not 1990. The threshold for error for speed measuring devices is measured in the hundredths of a MPH.

    Also, depending on angle, the radar/lidar is already estimating the speed to be low. If the radar gun measures an object that’s 25 degrees off from being straight in front of it, the speed will be about 10% off. That means someone could be going about 44MPH in the 30MPH zone and if the radar is a few feet away from the edge of the road, or the motorist is a few lanes over, the radar will register 40MPH instead of the actual speed, and they won’t be issued a ticket. This is why there shouldn’t be much, if any, threshold. If they set it to issue tickets at 30MPH, motorists could do 32-33MPH and still be clocked at 30MPH due to cosine law.

  • Speed cameras are the great equalizers. My brother has been pulled over many many times for “driving while black” but speed cameras don’t see color they just see speed. That’s another reason why I like them. Everyone is treated the same. They are much more fair and much less expensive than police officers.

    This law is so toothless. I think they are really scared about driver backlash. It’s like the law was written by a jerk who was worried he’d get a ticket.

  • Andrew

    Even so, that’s a question of implementation, not of law. That is, if the law is that the system can issue fines for vehicles traveling over 30 mph, and the system has a 3 mph margin of error, then no fines in practice would be issued for vehicles detected below 33 mph. But if the law specifies a 33 mph minimum, then the system would be set to issue fines only when the speed is guaranteed to be over 33 – that is, when the system detects a speed greater than 36!

  • Joe R.

    The problem here is these are apparently mobile speed cameras which use radar. You can indeed measure speeds accurately to 1/100ths of an MPH (I wrote programs to enable microcontrollers to do exactly that). The problem is you need two fixed points where the distance between them is measured very accurately, and never changes. Now if the mobile speed cams used a pair of sensors set a known distance apart in a metal frame, they would be accurate to at least tenths of an mph. Radar can’t be counted on to be accurate by more than a few mph.

    Bottom line-you need an error budget of at least 5 mph here unless you go with fixed camera installations. Legislators went with 10 mph. If we really want people driving no faster than 30 mph, then we just need to put in more 20 mph zones with speed cameras.

  • Joe R.

    The fact that speed cameras treat everyone the same is exactly why they’ve been such a hard sell. I’m bet good money many of the drivers nabbed by these cameras will be off-duty police officers (or on-duty officers speeding without sirens/lights). Now if the cameras granted “professional courtesy”, we would have had them for years.

  • Andrew

    That seems like it would work well on highways, but our speeding problem (or at least the speeding problem that I think we should focus on) is on local streets, with short blocks. It’s hard to time vehicles over long distances if they keep turning or stopping at red lights.

  • Joe R.

    Quite true. Despite the speeding, it’s rare to average more than 20 mph on local streets. Any system which timed the cars between two widely spaced points would show just about zero speeding. Such a system is really only useful on highways but I feel highways are the last place we should worry about speeding. For one thing, the 50 mph speed limit on city highways is generally about 15 to 25 mph too low for the road design. For another, pedestrians and cyclists aren’t present on highways. Focus on local streets. Don’t even bother enforcing highway speed limits until they’re first raised to a reasonable value.

  • Joe R.

    Even railroads, which are generally have a much lower tolerance for speeding, allow for a margin of a few mph before automatic devices kick the brakes on. Yes, the speed limit is exactly that-a speed never to be exceeded. By the same token, quite often railway engineers have to sit right on the limit to make schedules. When you do that, it’s not hard to drift 1 or 2 mph past the limit, especially on downgrades.

    The vast majority of motorists unfortunately view speed limits as minimum speeds, not maximum speeds. Part of the reason for this is years of setting legislated speed limits on highways which were too low for the road design. This in turn created a casual approach to all speed limits, even those on local roads. It also sadly fostered a disdain for traffic laws in general. The reasoning went something like this: “If I can go 15 over the speed limit in perfect safety on limited access highways, then maybe I don’t need to completely stop at every stop sign or red light. And maybe I don’t need my turn signals, either.”

  • Anonymous

    Sadly, I think it was written by dozens of jerks who *know* they’ll get tickets.

  • Steve Faust

    Besides being color blind, speed cameras don’t cause high speed car
    chases through city streets. Two weeks ago a 4 year old was killed on the sidewalk by a teenage unlicensed (learners permit only) driver trying to escape
    from a police stop. The cops had a good reason to stop this driver, his very erratic driving, but like all stops, there is always a 1 to 5 percent chance of of the driver trying to flee or fight.

    Senator Golden keeps calling for hiring more cops to chase down speeders. Really, Golden wants more high speed car chases through the city?

    Is he filminga remake of Bullet?

    The speed cameras catch the car’s plate and not the driver, true enough. But collect enough of these “pass the speed camera almost free” cards and somebody should be knocking at your door to check on the owners license, insurance, registration, his or her dog’s license and for all overdue library books, and maybe find out who is actually driving while speeding. This is what the extra cops can do – safely. Generally, give this character a very hard time.

    I suspect that the insurance companies will get into the act too since they insure the car as well as the driver(s). They already use practically irrelevant data such as the owner’s credit score to set rates. Insurance companies are not going to miss using something as obvious as a string of speeding tickets on a single car to
    adjust the owner’s rates. Upwards. This could hurt the right people. For a change.

    If this speed camera “test” does not expose any fatal flaws, then “we” have the ammunition to force a general expansion of speed cameras beyond the limited school zones.

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