By Joy Bergmann
Nods rippled around the room at a recent NYPD 20th Precinct Community Council meeting as an Upper West Sider decried the prevalence of red light running. “Every single day for the past several weeks, I have almost been hit by a motorcycle running through a red light,” said the UWS resident. “Why wouldn’t you install a camera that can take a picture and find these people? The camera would pay for itself in a month!”
The answer to that question lies in Albany.
Although New York City pioneered the nation’s first red-light camera program in 1994, the state legislature has been stingy about the number of cameras it’s allowed to operate: only 50 at first, then 100 in 2006. The legislature authorized the current number, 150, in 2009. That remains New York State law, even though the city has 13,543 intersections with traffic signals.
But proposed legislation now seeks to increase that number, from 150 to 1,325 red-light cameras citywide.
“The current 150 cameras is a pittance compared to what’s needed to even partially address the need for safer streets,” says State Senator Brad Hoylman-Sigal, who represents the Upper West Side and is a co-sponsor of the bill. “Red-light camera enforcement is cost-effective, accurate, unbiased, and available to us right now if Albany gets behind it.”
Do red-light cameras promote safer streets?
“Red light safety cameras have been shown to reduce both red light violations and crashes,” says the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) via its website. The national nonprofit funds and evaluates research to improve traffic safety. An IIHS study found that “cameras reduced the fatal red light running crash rate of large cities by 21%.”
IIHS notes that some studies report increased risk of rear-end collisions at camera-equipped intersections (fine-averse drivers may make sudden stops to avoid tickets), but says such crashes “tend to be much less severe than front-to-side crashes, so the net effect is positive.”
Though there are relatively few cameras at NYC intersections, they do have an impact where they are in use, according to the city’s Department of Transportation (DOT). “The Red Light Camera Program has been effective at deterring drivers from running red lights,” a spokesperson told WSR via email. “The average daily number of red-light running violations issued at camera locations has declined by over 77 percent since the program began in 1994.” DOT favors expanding the camera program, according to the spokesperson, “so more of the city can benefit from its life-saving effects.”
Why do some legislators resist allowing more cameras in NYC?
Despite the safety statistics, some lawmakers say they’ll vote against any further expansion.
“The only thing [cameras] do is provide a money grab and an alternative tax method on New Yorkers who are suffering already,” says State Senator Simcha Felder, who represents Borough Park, Brooklyn. “If they want to really deal with safety, get rid of the cameras, stop taxing New Yorkers, and do things the way they used to get done: have the cops stop people who are speeding or driving recklessly, and that will do the job.”
Hoylman-Sigal says cameras complement policing and rejects the taxation-by-citation reasoning. “It’s a spurious argument. It’s a tax you don’t have to pay if you follow the law.”
Why do reps from Elmira or Poughkeepsie get to decide on NYC’s cameras?
Blame Article IX of the New York Constitution which dictates how municipalities may exercise “home rule” over local operations. “It shouldn’t be Albany’s purview in my opinion,” says Hoylman-Sigal. “I favor home rule on traffic issues.”
But for now, he says, the next best thing would be for members of the New York City Council to pass a resolution known as a “Home Rule Message” endorsing the bill for more cameras. “Councilmembers should make it a legislative priority for the coming 2024 session. Passage is unlikely without the city specifically asking for it.”
State Senator Patrick M. Gallivan, who represents Buffalo’s outskirts, underscored the influence of such requests. “I have supported similar legislation in the past, particularly when it comes at the request of a local government entity,” he said via email to WSR.
How do red-light cameras work?
According to a DOT report, when a vehicle runs through a red light, sensors embedded in the road trigger a digital camera situated about 50 feet back from the stop line. A series of photos captures the vehicle, the intersection, and the red-light signal. Human inspectors determine if the photos provide adequate evidence to issue a Notice of Liability, aka a ticket.
Camera enforcement relies on capturing a legible license plate from the offending vehicle. The proposed expansion would not impact red-light-running e-bikes or e-scooters because they do not require registration and plates, though some councilmembers are advocating regulation for such e-vehicles.
Further frustrating enforcement is the growing problem of untraceable vehicles with obscured, defaced, or fake license plates known as “ghost cars.” The DOT did not respond to WSR’s question asking for the percentage of camera violations that are dismissed due to illegible or fraudulent plates. But recent reports put it at 4%, 5%, or 7%.
What are the penalties for a red-light camera ticket?
The vehicle’s registered owner is responsible for paying a $50 fine, regardless of who was driving through the light. Much like a parking violation, red-light camera tickets do not levy points against a driver’s license, nor do they impact someone’s insurance rates. (Drivers ticketed by an NYPD officer for running a red light receive three points on their license and face at least $278 in fines, according to the Department of Motor Vehicles.)
According to the city’s Department of Finance, during fiscal year 2023, owners received 672,142 red-light camera violations totaling $33.6 million in fines; the department collected $31.4 million in fines, which was put toward the city’s general fund. Owners contested 2.5% of red-light camera violations, with only .3% ultimately being dismissed following hearings and appeals.
The red-light camera program has more than paid for itself, according to city officials. From its inception in 1994 through June 2021, the city has received $333.8 million in net revenues after subtracting the cost of equipment and staffing, according to the most recent DOT report.
What about extra punishment for repeat offenders?
“Your vehicle can be booted if you owe the City of New York more than $350 in camera violation tickets that are in judgment,“ a finance department spokesperson told WSR via email. “Your vehicle may be towed if you do not pay the violation judgment debt and related fees within two business days of booting.”
The city supports another pending bill that would call for suspension of a vehicle’s registration if the owner gets five or more red-light camera tickets in a year.
Hoylman-Sigal says he backs escalating the penalties. “Safety has to be paramount.”
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