Speed Cameras Will Surround Every New York City Public School

In March 20, 2019

By Vivian Wang
The New York Times

ALBANY — The speed cameras that were installed around many New York City public schools several years ago seemed like an unqualified success: Traffic deaths near the cameras fell by more than half, and speeding was reduced by more than 60 percent.

And yet, last summer, the cameras went dark, a casualty of partisan politicking in Albany and a potent reminder of the capital’s reputation for dysfunction.

Now they are being revived, and then some: The newly Democratic-led State Legislature on Tuesday voted to renew and vastly expand the speed camera program, in a nearly fivefold increase that city officials say will cover every elementary, middle and high school in the city.

City officials said the authorization to place cameras in 750 school zones would make New York’s school speed camera program the most robust in the nation.

“We are depoliticizing the issue of pedestrian safety,” said Senator Andrew Gounardes of Brooklyn, the bill’s sponsor in his chamber.

Cameras have monitored dangerous driving in the city’s school zones since 2014, after the Legislature approved a pilot program to install cameras at 20 zones in every borough. The number has since expanded to 160.

Since then, the city has reported a 63 percent reduction in speeding in those school zones, and a 17 percent reduction in traffic injuries. The average number of deaths each year in school zones with a camera fell from 18 to 8.

But the program expired last summer, after the then Republican-led State Senate refused to renew it unless it was tied to other measures the Democratic Assembly opposed. Advocates and elected officials — who had been pushing to double the program — watched as the cameras effectively went dark in July.

The subsequent outrage prompted Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to issue an executive order in August reactivating the cameras, bypassing the Legislature. The City Council also passed legislation that it said gave them authority to restart the cameras, even though lawyers have long said that state law technically requires approval from Albany.

Now, the Legislature is joining that push. The expansion will be phased in over three years.

The location of each camera will be determined by the city’s Department of Transportation. City officials said they expected every school to be covered by the expansion. The bill also widens the radius of a school zone and allows the cameras to be active for longer hours each day.

Currently, the cameras can operate from an hour before school until an hour after; under the new law, they could operate from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.

The previous program covered only 7 percent of New York City schoolchildren.

“As someone whose own family has suffered a loss to traffic violence, this is incredibly personal,” said Mr. Gounardes, a first-term Democratic legislator who unseated a Republican who had a well-documented record of speeding.

Deborah Glick, a Manhattan assemblywoman who sponsored the bill in her chamber, called opposition to expansion “inexplicable” and “indefensible.”

Mr. Cuomo said on Tuesday that he would sign the bill. A companion bill passed on Tuesday would also create a pilot program in Buffalo.

Thirteen states currently have some form of speed camera program, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Some, like New York’s, are limited to certain localities, while others are statewide. Nationwide, 139 communities have adopted speed cameras.

Between 2014 and 2017, New York City’s speed camera program brought in $83 million in net revenue. Proponents have always emphasized that the cameras were intended to improve public safety, not generate money.

Polly Trottenberg, New York City’s transportation commissioner, said she believed the city’s pilot program had already made it a standout nationally for school traffic safety, and that the expansion would cement that status.

“I don’t know of any state or jurisdiction that has a program as robust even as the one we have now,” she said. “We want to make this the gold standard.”

Other cities in New York could follow suit by petitioning the Legislature for approval for programs of their own. The Assembly speaker, Carl E. Heastie, said he would “absolutely” consider further expansion.

The bill’s passage was bittersweet for advocates, many of whom arrived at the Capitol on Tuesday bearing photos of loved ones lost to traffic accidents. Ten-year-old Preston Liao, whose 3-year-old sister was killed by a driver, lent Mr. Gounardes his toy chain saw — what he called a “change saw.”