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Mayor Prays to the Albany Gods: ‘Give Us 24-7 Speed Cameras’

2:29 PM EST on December 22, 2020

On Sunday, Mayor de Blasio prayed at a church in Queens. On Tuesday, he begged Albany for help on reckless driving. Photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office

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All he wants for Christmas is ... to bust speeding drivers. Or, more accurately, have the state do it for him.

Mayor de Blasio announced on Tuesday that his effort to end the other pandemic — reckless, excessive speeds by car drivers during the COVID-19 crisis — would involve asking legislators in Albany to allow the city's 750 school zone camera systems to issue tickets on a 24-7 basis instead of the current hours of 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. on weekdays only.

"We are appealing today to the legislature to help us do more, to help us save lives," de Blasio said. "Help us with the most fundamental step: speed cameras. They work. They get people to start slowing down. We need more because we need to save lives."

Given the struggle that ensued two years ago when legislators failed to expand the speed camera program before finally doing so last year, there's no certainty that lawmakers in Albany will grant Hizzoner his holiday wish.

But the city did provide ample statistical evidence that extending the cameras to full service would save lives and prevent thousands of injuries per year. That's especially important this year, when speeding is up dramatically, and fatalities are up even as the sheer number of crashes are down — results that suggest that the crashes that are happening are simply more deadly because of the excessive speeds. Through Monday, 238 people have died on the roads of the city, the most since the same period in 2014 (on the plus side, the number of dead pedestrians, 98, is the lowest it has ever been under this mayor).

To bolster the argument for more hours of camera operation, transportation officials said on Tuesday that three-quarters of traffic fatalities this year happened in times or places where no automated speed enforcement is allowed under current state law.

"Right there, there's a problem," de Blasio said.

And over a third of non-highway fatalities occurred in school-camera zones during hours when the cameras could not issue tickets.

"We fought hard to get those cameras, but people's lives are being lost because we can't operate those cameras all day," he added. "It doesn't make sense."

Transportation Alternatives supports the expansion but the safe streets group also pointed out that the mayor doesn't need help upstate to achieve Vision Zero at home.

“The mayor controls the streets here in the city, and he can make a real difference right now by installing proven traffic calming measures that save lives," said the group's spokesman, Cory Epstein. "New Yorkers need safe street investments, additional protected bike lanes, and a commitment from Mayor de Blasio during his final year in office to once and for all put people before cars.”

The group reissued its current list of complaints, including budget cuts made by this mayor this year to his celebrated Vision Zero program and his Green Wave initiative; the fact that traffic fatalities have doubled in the Bronx, where there is but 3 percent of the city's bike infrastructure; the mayor's failure to install 30 miles of protected bike lanes this year; and the mayor's failure to take the advice of his own surface transportation panel.

This year's numbers are similar to historic data. The city's annual report on automated camera enforcement [PDF], which was also issued on Tuesday, shows that 37 percent of fatalities or serious injuries between 2011 and 2018 occurred at times when the cameras are not allowed to issue tickets. The breakdown was 11.8 percent at night and 25.1 percent on weekends.

Source: DOT
Source: DOT

The report also had other interesting data:

    • Within four and a half months of the installation of a speed camera, speeding drops (on average) by more than 70 percent (see chart above).
    • Nearly 60 percent of drivers who get a speed camera ticket never get a second one. That said, roughly 23 percent get two or more tickets after getting that first one. Two percent of drivers get more than nine tickets after that first one.
Source: DOT
Source: DOT

The speed camera program does raise significant revenue for the city, which anti-camera forces tend to use as evidence that the city is just trying to raise money (reminder: a driver must be going more than 10 miles per hour above the speed limit to get one of the $50 tickets). Since fiscal year 2014, the city has spent $164 million to operate and install the camera systems. Over the same period, the cameras have generated nearly $255 million in funds — a "profit" of just short of $90 million.

Even as he called on Albany leaders for support, the mayor admitted he sympathizes with drivers who are angry when they get a ticket.

"Anyone who hears the words 'speed cameras' and they don't like to hear those words because they remind them of the tickets they get, I can sympathize," the mayor said, inexplicably. "I've had moments as a driver when I wasn't careful enough and I got one of those speed camera tickets. No one likes it. But you know what, they change behavior. And the basic fact: You don't get a ticket if you're not speeding."

Overall, advocates were pleased by the mayoral call for expanded camera hours.

"The city's speed cameras have already delivered safer streets. Redoubling their effectiveness should be a top priority in Albany in 2021," Jon Orcutt of Bike New York said in a statement.

Eric McClure, executive director of StreetsPAC, the political action committee that led the charge for the last expansion of speed cameras, also pointed out that "there's no reason" why speed cameras should not be on all the time, given that drivers speed all the time.

"Every New Yorker deserves to be safe from speeding drivers, and one ticket is, in the majority of cases, enough to get responsible operators to slow down," he said.

Legislative leaders such as Sen. Andrew Gounardes and Assembly Member Deborah Glick both issued statements that they would push for the expansion in Albany.

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