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  (Source: AP Photo)
Public radio station finds that while ticket rates have drastically risen, there have been some small statistical traffic safety gains

New York Public Radio station WNYC has just wrapped up some serious analysis of New York City's new robotic speeding ticket system.  According to the in-depth high-tech statistics of the report, the station's study shows that the system's rollout has been relatively rapid, with 51 speeding cameras spotted across the city.  As for the positive impact of the program, the title elequently summarizes -- "Do Speed Cameras Make Streets Safer or Just Rake in Millions? Yes."

I. Safety First!

Across the country red light cameras and speeding cameras are autonomously increasingly giving drivers expensive traffic tickets in urban regions.  Washington D.C., Chicago, and New York City are among the cities nationwide to install these all-seeing eyes.

New York City in particular was among the most aggressive in the pursuit of automated traffic enforcement, having launched its red light camera program way back in 1994. The program watches for drivers approaching the intersections at unsafe speeds at a red light, and photographs the license plates of drivers who run a red light.  Drivers receive their tickets in the mail.

NYC red light camera
A red light camera looms watchfully in New York City's near neighbor, New Jersey.
[Image Source: Peter Haskell/WCBS 880]

Last year New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio ordered a rollout of speeding ticket cameras, as part of an initiative he called "Vision Zero."  The goal of Vision Zero, as he stated in his annual "State of the City" speech this January, was "bringing pedestrian deaths down to a level not seen since 1910."

NYC Vision Zero

Mayor de Blasio states, "I want to emphasize we are making this statement just two weeks into our administration because we think there is an epidemic here. There has been an epidemic of traffic fatalities and it can't go on and the time to start change is now.  We found long and hard to begin to put in the speed cameras we need, we need many more."

Mayor De Blasio
NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio [Image Source: nyc.gov]

The new cameras most commonly send $50 USD tickets to drivers who are going more than 10 miles per hour over the speed limit.  New York City's Department of Transportation (DOT) spokesperson Juan Martinez explains that number stating:

If someone pops out ahead of you between two cars 100 feet away, the difference between life and death for that person is whether you were going 40 or 30. That’s the stakes here.

speed ticket
An example of the ticket commonly sent out by the network of cameras. [Image Source: The Newspaper]

In addition to sending out speeding tickets autonomously via the new speeding cams, the project also offers locals location-aware input about the project and interactive maps with crash/infraction data for planning and research purposes.

II. An Independent Lens

The WNYC report looked to give the public a bird's eye view of their own.  Over the last year it tracked down the locations of 51 speeding ticket cameras around the city.  



According to its data, roughly half of the cameras are in static locations, while about half are roaming-- attached to police cars.  Outfitted cars are parked at strategic locations and left to do their thing.  According to WNYC, the roaming police car sites are moved every day or two, keep things unpredictable.



The static cameras tend to fall into two primary categories, according to the report.  The first category -- busy intersections -- seems to fall narrowly within the pedestrian safety bullet points of the program.  The second kind -- speed traps -- are more controversial as they're placed on highway exit ramps and similar locations with no pedestrian crossings.



The statistics on these cameras can be interpreted in multiple ways, adding fuel to both the fiery perspective of both the program's proponents and to the that of its detractors who claim it's a crash grab.

According to the study, the roving the cameras are rarely even on and are primarily a tool for deterrence.  Intersection cameras, meanwhile were relatively active, issuing 8,536 tickets over roughly the third of the year (129 days, to be precise) they were tracked.  These cameras issued $446,150 USD worth of tickets, with the most common being a basic $50 USD ticket for minor speed infractions.  On average an intersection camera issued 66+ tickets/day -- more than your average cop.

NYC speeding ticket camera
A group of cameras surveys a city intersection. [Image Source: NYDailyNews/Andrew Savulich]

But it was the more controversial speed trap cameras that indeed proved the cash cows.  They issued 55,719 tickets over the third of the year the study followed them.  That's roughly 6.5x as many tickets as their intersection brethren.  On average cameras issued 619+ tickets/day -- definitely more than humanly possible for a single cop.  In total these sites issued $2.8M USD worth of tickets -- roughly 6.2x as much tickets in dollars as the intersection cameras (which indicates the fine per ticket at these cameras was just a tad bit lower).

Speed trap cameras
Speed trap-style cameras were the real moneymakers for the city.  While they didn't safeguard pedestrians like intersection speeding cams, they did rake in 6+ times as much ticket revenue.
[Image Source: Dave Gershgorn/WNYC]

For the full year the cameras 471,625 tickets worth a total of $23,581,250 USD in fines.  That's nearly four times as many tickets as the 117,767 tickets, the New York City Police Department's human officers issued over the year.  The most prolific ticketer was a speed trap-style camera deployed off the Belt Parkway along Shore Parkway in Coney Island.  In 2014 it issued 55,000 tickets with a face value of over $2.75M USD.  That's more than 100 times the number of tickets than the entire 60th Precinct's officers wrote by hand, according to the report.

While that might seem like a cash grab, the WNYC report also throws a bone to the program's supporters, noting that the data shows that vehicle crashes near the cameras decline 3.9 percent, and crashes with injuries declined 13.4 percent.

NYC speeding near schools
In defense of the cameras the city even fell back to the old "think of the children" justification. [Image Source: NYC DOT [PDF]]

Likewise, the city offers statistics of its own [PDF], noting that in July through October periods in 2013 and 2014 -- a time period that coincided with the camera rollout -- "traffic fatalities (motorists/passengers)" fell from 52 to 37.  Both the city data and the WNYC report seem to agree that the cameras are correlated with a modest decline in localized accidents and fatal accidents city wide.

However, the city's own data shows the program has yet to show progress on one crucial objective -- pedestrian safety.  In early 2014 56 “bicyclists/pedestrians" were struck and killed by cars.  That number has since risen to 64 in 2015, in spite of the cameras.

III. Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

Another mixed statistic is the number of tickets issued. According to the WNYC and the city's data, the number of tickets each static camera issued per month statistically fell.  But it's unclear whether that means the awareness of the program is truly stopping speeding, or if locals have just wised up to the locations and learned to temperorarily stop speeding.

The law offices of New York Traffic Ticket Lawyer Weiss & Associates, PC brings up another interesting potential angle, writing (in a blog on red light cameras in NYC):

Some motorists have taken matters into their own hands by purchasing and applying a clear spray called Photoblocker which distorts a license plate’s image. Without a clear photograph of the license plate, a fine cannot be sent. Use of such products is illegal in New York City and, of course, not recommended. So be careful…Big Brother is watching you.

(Photoblocker -- commonly sold as aersol cans of "reflective finish" -- retails for about $12 USD/can on Amazon.com, Inc. (AMZN).)

reflective services -- aerosol can

In other words, even in the case of reduced ticketing, it's possible that more citizens are adopting these kinds of legally risky countermeasures for fear of getting their license plates photographed and getting ticketed for low-level speeding.

The page also notes that the NYC DOT claimed the red light camera program led to a "41% decline in collisions and a 35% reduction in vehicular fatalities" when they were initially installed back in 1994.  And yet in recent years, accidents and fatalities -- both motorists and pedestrians -- have crept back up in spite of the cameras.

NYC traffic -- congestion
With the help of camera, cops have issued five times as many tickets to motorists on NYC's packed streets. [Image Source: GirlOnFireKE5/DeviantArt]

The inconclusive data on the performance of the speeding cameras (versus the expense to the public) is not stopping some proponents from declaring the cameras to be a ringing success.  The Streets Blog, a pro-traffic camera blog, interprets the WNYC report rather interestingly, writing:

Speed cameras are reducing traffic injuries and lowering the rate of speeding on New York City streets, according to an analysis by WNYC.... NYC DOT also has yet to make full use of the speed cameras at its disposal. The law enables the city to operate 140 cameras, but only 51 are in use so far. Former DOT policy director Jon Orcutt tweeted that the WNYC analysis is all the more reason for the agency to deploy all of its 140 cameras now, rather than over the course of 2015.

That's the dark side of the new report -- it will likely see as much spin as the tires on a busy NYC cab.  But at the end of the day, even if statistics are misrepresented or cherrypicked, it's always beeter to have more data, rather than less.

Sources: WNYC.org, NYC DOT: 2015 Report [PDF], MyFox NYC, Capital New York





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