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Staten Island Vigilantes Helping Reckless Drivers Avoid Accountability

Staten Islanders are helping reckless drivers with yellow ribbons. A Facebook group is encouraging them — and worse. Photo: Vince DiMiceli

Oh, tie a yellow ribbon 'round the camera pole...

Staten Island anti-speed-camera vigilantes are helping reckless drivers endanger their neighbors by alerting speeders of the locations of city-installed enforcement cameras — and they're offensively appropriating a time-honored symbol of freedom and military service, to boot.

NY1 reported on Wednesday that people have started hanging yellow ribbons — a symbol of hope for returning POWs and servicemembers, as well as for prisoners and families of traffic violence victims — as a warning sign near speed camera systems. Scott Nicholls, the organizer of the effort said he is encouraging people to hang the ribbons and add locations of cameras to his map on the Facebook group Staten Island Speed Cameras because the life-saving technology is just a money-grab by the city.

He has the support of the borough's political establishment. Council Member Steven Matteo has proposed legislation requiring the city to put up signs indicating the location of all speed cameras (though all newly installed speed limit signs in the city include a smaller warning "Photo enforced" on them currently). And Council Member Joe Borelli is a well-known opponent of holding drivers accountable for speeding — arguing that the city's 25 mile-per-hour speed limit is too low for "suburban" Staten Island.

Cameras do not issue tickets until a driver hits 36 miles per hour. "Is 36 speeding?" Borelli asked facetiously.

To safety advocates, the yellow ribbon campaign — and the borough's leaders — are way off base.

"There's a 'halo effect' that comes with the knowledge that speed cameras exists, but that effect is diminished if drivers know the exact locations of the cameras," said Transportation Alternatives spokesman Joe Cutrufo. "If drivers know exactly where the cameras are located, they're more likely to speed in places where there are no known cameras. But if drivers know there could be a speed camera anywhere, they tend to drive safely everywhere."

And, increasingly, there are cameras in more and more locations. The city is installing 60 camera systems per month this year to get to the 750 school-zone camera systems authorized last year by state law. City statistics show that drivers that 81 percent of drivers who get a speed-camera-issued ticket do not get a second one — more evidence that the yellow-ribbon campaign is detrimental to safety. (The report also shows that speeding is the main factor in whether a crash becomes a fatal one.)

"The sole purpose of Department of Transportation’s speed camera program is to deter speeding and reduce injuries and fatalities on New York City’s roadways," said a spokesperson for the agency.

Even one Staten Island driver, who declined to give his name but supports the yellow warning ribbons, admitted that the DOT may have a point and that warning drivers may have a reverse effect for safety.

"Drivers speed when they think they can get away with it," he said. “So until there are cameras on every block, speeding will continue.”

The use of the yellow ribbon is not only an offense to safety advocates, but to military families, said one veteran, who called it a perversion of the saffron-colored symbol to help people drive recklessly.

“To use the yellow ribbon this way is a mockery of a symbol that is near and dear to the military and their families,” said Kevin Robins, a member of Families for Safe Streets and a Navy veteran. "It's really sad that someone would do this. Basically, they are aiding and abetting reckless driving. I can't be silent about that. Any military person is going to see the ribbon and think it's support for the troops, but it's not. It's disgraceful."

Yellow ribbons are also a symbol of traffic violence, pointed out street safety activist Brian Howald.

The NYPD did not respond to questions, though the agency has been very critical of mapping software programs such as Google and Waze that alert drivers to the presence of speed cameras.

“The posting of such information for public consumption is irresponsible since it only serves to ... encourage reckless driving," the NYPD had written to Google last year. "Revealing the location of [cameras] puts those drivers, their passengers, and the general public at risk."

Mayor de Blasio did not address the yellow ribbon campaign at a street safety rally on Wednesday — but he did allude to drivers who believe their desire to speed is more important than safety.

"For a long, long time our society worshipped at the altar of the automobile and worshipped the false idol and it led us down a very dangerous road, a road of acceptance that we never ever should have followed," he said before signing a law that will hold reckless drivers more accountable. "But I think people are waking up really, really fast. I think everyone here is part of that vanguard. So, let’s answer some questions together that will help all New Yorkers to think about this. Is it the right thing to do to put speed over safety?"

Audience: No.

"I can’t hear you," the mayor continued. "Is it the right thing to do to put speed over safety?"

Audience: No!

"Is it the right thing to do to put convenience over saving lives?"

Audience: No!

"Is it the right thing to do to put our cars before our kids?"

Audience: No!

----

With apologies to Tony Orlando and the writers of "Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree," Irwin Levine and L. Russell Brown, we've taken the liberty of writing our own musical take on what the Staten Island vigilantes are doing. Sing along with Friend of Streetsblog The Speeders:

I'm drivin' home, I'm going fast
I'll slow down if a camera I should pass
The good news is my neighbors help me drive so recklessly
Hanging warning ribbons to help me keep my speed (to help me keep my speed)

Whoa, tie a yellow ribbon 'round the cam'ra pole
Why must pesky cops try to slow my roll?
If I just see a ribbon 'round the cam'ra pole
I'll have to slow down, put on a frown, and drive under control!
If I just see a yellow ribbon 'round the cam'ra pole.

These camera systems punish me
It's a war on cars — as everyone can see
The mayor calls for safety, but he really just wants money
Driving fast is what we do — Americans are free!
Driving slow is such a tease

Whoa, tie a yellow ribbon 'round the cam'ra pole
Why must pesky cops try to slow my roll?
If I just see a ribbon 'round the camera pole
I'll have to slow down, put on a frown, and drive under control!
If I just see a yellow ribbon 'round the cam'ra pole.

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