Amid Epic Crisis of Road Deaths, Some Members of the City Council Still Oppose Speed Cameras

Transportation Alternatives' Danny Harris (with Assembly Member Harvey Epstein, far right) rallied for speed cameras. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman
Transportation Alternatives' Danny Harris (with Assembly Member Harvey Epstein, far right) rallied for speed cameras. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman

The City Council put its rubber stamp to Albany’s extension and expansion of New York’s speed camera program, but not before a significant number of local pols questioned the life-saving program with myths, not facts.

The Council’s “home rule” message passed by 43-7, which specifically recommends that the state legislature pass the watered-down bill to allow city speed cameras to operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week instead of the current 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.

The seven “no” votes were cast by Council members Joan Ariola (R-Queens), Joe Borelli (R-Staten Island), David Carr (R-Staten Island), Darlene Mealy (D-Brooklyn), Vickie Paladino (R-Queens), Kalman Yeger (R-Brooklyn) and Inna Vernikov (R-Brooklyn).

Chart: DOT
Chart: DOT

Supporters of speed cameras consistently pointed out the facts about the city’s 750 school-zone camera systems, namely that speeding decreases dramatically in an area after a camera is installed and drivers clearly adjust to the new enforcement given that only a small number get a second ticket. Also, crashes decrease after the installation of a camera. And statistics show that nearly 60 percent of this year’s road fatalities have occurred in the hours when cameras cannot issue tickets.

“We have seen over 80 traffic deaths in 2022 so far and these deaths are unacceptable and preventable, so we must use all the tools at our disposal,” said speed camera advocate and Transportation Committee Chairwoman Selvena Brooks-Powers. “We are sending a clear message to Albany … to make sure that we are keeping our most vulnerable New Yorkers safe.”

Some of her colleagues did not get that message, blasting the $50 tickets as a revenue grab.

“The majority of residents living in my district see speed cameras as little more than a tax levied upon the people of New York,” said Ariola. “This legislation can become a very slippery slope that financially burdens New Yorkers, ordinary New Yorkers.”

And Paladino made a baseless claim that speed cameras create congestion.

“People come into my office constantly to complain about getting these tickets,” she said. “They actually cause more accidents because it’s slowing and stopping and stopping and going, making traffic flow terribly inconsistent.”

Point of fact: In Paladino’s Eastern Queens district in 2014, before cameras were installed, there were 3,857 reported crashes, injuring 692 people and killing five. Last year, when cameras were fully deployed in school zones in her district, there were 1,727 reported crashes, according to city stats, injuring 654 people and killing two.

Council Member Carr made a similar argument that speed cameras do not promote safety. But in 2014, there were 4,290 reported crashes in his district, injuring 991 people. By 2021, the numbers had dropped to 1,621 reported crashes, injuring 708 people.

After Ariola, Carr and others spoke against speed cameras, Council Member Eric Dinowitz (D-Bronx), who voted in favor of the camera expansion, offered one piece of advice to her and other New Yorkers who get tickets for speeding.

“If you don’t want a speeding ticket, don’t speed,” he said.

And Council Member Bob Holden (D-Queens) reminded his colleagues that speeding happens all night, when the cameras are currently not allowed to issue tickets.

“My district sounds like the Indy 500 at night,” he said of his quiet residential corner of Middle Village.

Several members of the Council said they only supported speed camera expansion after a state bill was gutted of key provisions that would have also reined in reckless drivers.

Council Member Linda Lee, who represents a district in Eastern Queens, suggested that the initial state bill would send people to jail for excessive tickets (which is not true unless they don’t pay them or drive on a suspended license, which is already illegal). She said the original bill would have resulted in “criminalizing how we get around.”

“Some of the measures that were initially proposed would have disproportionately impacted us and resulted in constituents losing their licenses and even going to jail,” said Lee, referring to provisions in the original bill that would have stripped drivers of their licenses or their cars of their registrations for excessive camera-issued tickets. But added that she now supports 24/7 camera operation because it “adequately addresses the most egregious culprits without disproportionately impacting Eastern Queens or criminalizing how we get around.”

DOT Commissioner Ydanis Rodriguez with Families for Safe Streets co-founder Amy Cohen.
DOT Commissioner Ydanis Rodriguez with Families for Safe Streets co-founder Amy Cohen.

And Council Member Althea Stevens (D-Bronx) said she would not have been able to vote to support speed cameras if the state legislature had created escalating fines for repeat offenders (which it no longer does).

Brooklyn Council Member Ari Kagan also said he supported the bill, but not without attacking the earlier version of it, too.

“This is not the most effective tool for fighting traffic fatalities,” he said. “I believe that stop signs, speed bumps, and crosswalks are more effective. … But I reluctantly decided to vote for it because I was assured that there would be no escalation of fines and no additional cameras. I believe it is absurd that DOT needs 36 months for a traffic study to install a new stop sign or crosswalk.”

The vote came after a rally at City Hall Park in support of the life-saving program. Department of Transportation Commissioner Ydanis Rodriguez spoke passionately in support of speed cameras.

“To anyone who is still like questioning if we should have speed cameras or not, or where we should have speed cameras, I say, we should have speed cameras everywhere there are crashes,” he said.

He also made a vague reference to the Adams administration’s 11th-hour — and ultimately failed — effort to have the state legislature expand the radius that speed cameras can operate, as the current quarter-mile around a school building is not covering the entire city.

“Hopefully, next year we will be able to capture the other 18 percent of New York City that is not currently included,” he said.

The vote also came after a 1-year-old child was killed by a driver on Staten Island. So far this year, close to 90 people have died on New York City roadways which makes this one of the deadliest years since Vision Zero was launched in 2014. A recent Streetsblog investigation revealed that roadways around schools are especially dangerous.

reconciled numbers through 5-25-22
Chart: DOT

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated two Council members’ party affiliations.