New York’s five-year-old network of cameras near schools has reduced speeding, and thus reduced injuries and, most likely, prevented deaths, but now, in a case of byzantine politics and self-dealing, the Republican-led state senate wants to end the program. Republican leaders aren’t just acting against New Yorkers’ interests; they’re acting against their own, and against those of downstate businesses. With GOP control over the senate hanging in the balance in November, it’s unwise for the party to be seen as skimping on safety.
Though it has nearly half of the state’s population, New York City holds surprisingly little control over its own affairs. Even on something as uncontroversial as regulating speeding, the state legislature and Governor Cuomo are ultimately in charge. Five years ago, during the final spring of the Bloomberg administration, state lawmakers refused to approve the cameras, causing the then-mayor to “erupt in fury,” as the New York Times put it. Bloomberg directed his ire at three legislators in particular, warning that the “parents of the child when a child is killed” should call one or all of them: Dean Skelos, senate majority leader; Simcha Felder, a Brooklyn Democrat who caucuses with Republicans; and Marty Golden, a Brooklyn Republican. The lawmakers backed down and approved a plan for 20 school zones that summer.
The program was modest. The city could install cameras in 20 of the city’s 2,300 school zones (expanded to 140 a year later). The violation for a vehicle caught on camera going more than 10 miles above the legal speed limit was $50, a fraction of the $288 minimum cost of a school-zone speeding ticket and state surcharge. The city couldn’t issue violations outside a range of 1,320 feet around a school, nor could it issue violations outside of school hours (plus one hour before and after school). Unlike police-issued speeding tickets, the violations do not accrue points on a driver’s license or result in higher insurance costs; the violation is attached to a car, not a person.
Despite these limitations, Bloomberg’s insistence that cameras would improve safety has proved correct. Crashes with injuries in the speed zones fell by 15.1 percent during the program’s first two years, compared with the average of the previous two years, according to a city report issued last summer. Pedestrian injuries fell 23.3 percent. This is hardly a shocking finding: speed is the number one factor in the severity of crashes, and imposing penalties on speeding deters speeding. During the first month of the program, cameras issued an average of 104 speeding violations each day; during the eighteenth month, the average was down to 35 each day. The speeding-camera program is about as uncontroversial as government gets.
Why, then, with the program expiring later this summer, has the state senate thwarted its renewal and expansion? The reasons illustrate everything wrong with New York politics. State senator Felder, who has won election on Democratic and Republican ballot lines, this year refused to consider voting for speed-camera renewal unless the state legislature considered something entirely unrelated: mandating an armed guard or police officer posted at every New York City school, including the religious schools to which Felder’s many Orthodox constituents send their children. The idea is not backed by the NYPD or supported by evidence of threats.
State senator Golden is not merely an opponent of speed cameras; he is also their victim. School-zone cameras have caught Golden’s personal vehicle speeding three times in 2018 and a total of 14 times since the program began. Golden has vacillated on the cameras and prefers a system of warning lights and stoplights, which he or his driver could ignore without repercussion, unless a cop—one unimpressed with Golden’s political office—is there to catch him in the act.
Tellingly, NYPD leadership is fully behind the cameras, but the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA), the union that represents the NYPD rank-and-file, sides with Golden and Felder. According to the PBA, “red light and speed cameras can’t do the job of a live, professionally trained police officer—they can’t take a drunk, unlicensed or uninsured driver off the road, and they won’t catch evidence of other crimes.” That’s true, but cameras also do nothing to impede police officers from doing this important work. Since police officers are hardly likely to catch every speeder, it makes sense to automate some of this work, freeing up human resources to do more difficult tasks.
Ideologically, the program is conservative. By automating the cheapest and simplest kind of law-enforcement work, speed cameras actually save the government money. State senate Republicans should hold a vote—and demonstrate that their party is willing to buck special interests and heed the facts when it comes to a crucial matter of public safety.