Red Light Cameras Divide Suffolk County But is it Temporary

By, Kaylyn Ahrenstein

Jen Hoenigmann, who has a one-year-old daughter, fears for her child’s safety when ever she’s driving, because of more rear accidents after the implementation of traffic light cameras at intersections. “I hate these damn things,” Hoenigmann said. “They may prevent some accidents but they also cause rear-ending accidents. Someone stops short to avoid a ticket and then the next car hits them, it’s ridiculous and dangerous, especially for parents with children in the car.”

The Suffolk County Red light safety program began in July of 2010 with the hope of changing poor traffic behavior in both drivers and pedestrians. This issue of whether or not the cameras should be placed and where the cameras would be placed have had community members divided for years.  Suffolk County Legislator, Sarah Anker, voted against the program with the consideration of her constituents in mind, but has since come to agree with the program overall.

“It’s doing it’s job,” said Anker. “We have the statistics right now as far as reducing right angle accidents, the T-bone reduced by 30 percent.”

According to the The Suffolk County Red light safety program report, which is done by a non biased third party, in 2013 the total number accidents were reduced by 5.4 percent, right angle accidents were reduced by 30 percent, while the rear accidents, or fender benders, increased by 9.3 percent.

Legislator Anker is not the only one who has noticed a difference in these accidents. Robert Bennett, a Suffolk County police officer, works in Rocky Point and has seen a noticeable difference in accidents at the red light camera intersection in his jurisdiction.

“I only have one red light camera in my sector,” Officer Bennett said. “Since the red light camera has been installed I have noticed a decrease in drivers passing the red light.”

Officer Bennett said he noticed a decrease in accidents at the intersection of Route 25a and Rocky Point-Yaphank Road in Rocky Point. Officer Bennett also explained that Suffolk County consistently leads New York State in traffic crash fatalities almost every year. In 2013 there were 30,404 recorded accidents in Suffolk County, of which 140 were fatal. In Nassau County that same year, there were 63,921 recorded accidents but only 80 were fatal. These cameras are meant to change the behavior in drivers that is causing these accidents.

“The focus of the cameras are on the Right angle accidents, or T-Bones,” Anker said.

What many community members are unaware of, is that the program was originally a demonstration program and was amended to last longer.   

“The law was amended once in 2012 to allow 100 cameras and to extend the law through December 31, 2014,” Robyn Fellrath-Maresca, chief legislative aide for Anker, said. “The law was once again amended in 2014 to extend through December 31, 2019.”

These amendments changed the amount of cameras that were placed by adding 50 more, and also changed the amount of time they will remain in place. Anker said it is likely that they will have their time extended once again due to the progress of the behavior of drivers.

“Anything that helps to reduce that number is a step in the right direction,” Bennett said. “From what I have seen the red light cameras work toward that goal.”

The additional cameras are placed at intersections that have been carefully studied by the program that are deemed to be the most dangerous areas for fatal accidents. Some community members are upset about the extension of the law due to the fines and the ticketing, others say they are indifferent.

“RLCs (red light cameras) have been in place for quite some time at this point,” Bryan Biedenkapp, a Suffolk County community member, said. “Most people are aware that certain intersections are [have RLCs] and will appropriately obey signs and other road rules.”

While some drivers are not indifferent to the program others are becoming stressed out by it. Nicolette Rossi, a 22-year-old college student, said she is more nervous when coming to lights that are photo enforced.

“I don’t like the red light camera’s,” Rossi said. “Often times it flashes while no cars are moving and it gives me anxiety because I feel like I’m doing something wrong when I’m not.”

Rossi is not the only one to notice random flashes. Anker said the red light camera outside of her office flashes dozens of times during her day.

“Even with my blinds closed, the flash goes off and it’s just blinding,” Anker said.

These flashes distract drivers but can also distract pedestrians and cyclists. Cyclist Jimmie Scott has concerns when training for triathlons.

“Sometimes if I’m training and I’m coming up to a red light camera intersection I actually slow down because I’m worried about the possible crashes that could occur just from trying not to get a ticket,” Scott said. “It’s ridiculous how many rear end accidents I’ve seen since the cameras were placed.”

Scott Twining, a Marine reservist, travels from his home in Yaphank to his base in Garden City at least once month and has been issued a few of these tickets, some he said he didn’t even earn, the camera just went off.

“I’m a really cautious driver, I’ve always been that way and my friends and family even call me a ‘grandpa’ when I drive,” Twining said. “I almost never actually deserved the ticket when it was issued and yet it’s not worth the fight.”

Twining and Biedenkapp are in agreement that fighting the tickets is pointless. They say a $50 ticket with a $30 administrative fee is not worth taking off from their jobs to go to court.  They’d rather pay the ticket and just sacrifice that money.

Some community members have asked what the fees are going toward. In 2013, almost 804 people were given the $80 ticket a day. Over a year that totaled almost $2 million. This money is used within the Suffolk County Red light safety program.

“The fees go right back into the program to keep it running,” Anker said. “They use it for issuing the tickets and the upkeep of the cameras.”

The program is not all bad, from some people it’s made a real difference in the increase of safety.

Patty Ailman, a Suffolk County community member and bus driver, felt safer driving students knowing that there was less of a chance of being in a right angle accident.

“As a bus driver that has seen many accidents from red lights being ran, that these lights are protecting our children and are preventing accidents not just involving cars but also involving pedestrians such as children,” Patty Ailman said.

Legislator Anker said she feels very strongly about traffic safety and has recently added crossing guards to Miller Place School district.  She feels that getting changes to be made is not simple and that is why it’s tough to help everyone with these red light cameras.

“What’s frustrating as a legislator, it’s not as easy as I thought it would be,”  said Anker. “They did the test of how many people are crossing the road in Miller place in February.”

Anker had to appeal for the tests to be redone in a season that was warmer so the results would be more accurate.

Anker said she cares about the accuracy of tests because it’s the only way to determine the truth of how a system is working such as the Red light program. While yes some accidents have gone down the rear accidents have increased and Anker is passionate about fixing the program to help lower all accidents.

“Unfortunately the rear accidents have increased,” Anker said. “We have to do something, perhaps make the sign larger (photo enforced sign) or hang something or even paint something in the intersection.”

The photo enforced signs are required to be at least 30 inches wide by 40 inches high and 6 feet off the ground, but there is no requirement how close it has to be to an intersection.

Legislator Anker firmly believes that there is a way to cure the rear accidents and that it does not necessarily involve taking away the red light cameras.