It’s official. New York City will now impound your motor vehicle if you garner enough speed camera violations within a year. The speed cameras, which automatically take a photo of a car’s license plate if it’s exceeding the speed limit in any of the 750 school speed zones city-wide, are operational from 6 AM to 10 PM, weekdays.
The program was first authorized in 2013 by New York State Legislature and Governor Cuomo, under Section 1180-B of the NYS Vehicle and Traffic Law (VTL). After an initial legal challenge, the program resumed, and the number of permitted operating speed cams ballooned from 140 to 750, across the five boroughs.
While no one can argue that speeding can harm, or even kill, pedestrians, islanders are fed up with what they feel is the extraction of funds from their hard-working communities. And, the speed cams are lucrative, there’s no doubt about that: In the first 27 days of January, 2020, city coffers increased by a sum of $1,157,850, owing to motorists fined on Staten Island for exceeding posted speeds around schools. The fine is $50 per incident, and the owner of the motor vehicle is fined, even though they are not necessarily the driver.
An ongoing protest began last weekend, led by internationally-recognized local luminary, painter, sculptor, and performance artist Scott LoBaido, best known for his cross-country quest to paint an American Flag mural in every state, and throwing handfuls of manure in protest at the Brooklyn Museum in 1999. Staten Islanders, held up signs designed by LoBaido warning drivers approaching speed cameras.
The signs, emblazoned with the words “SPEED CAM AHEAD” in giant all-caps serif type, depict Mayor DeBlasio with horns and a dollar sign on his forehead, vicious-looking fangs protruding from his gaping mouth. (See the below prototype Mr. LoBaido is holding up.)
According to Mr. LoBaido, speaking about his signs in an interview with Staten Islander News Service this weekend at his studio in Grasmere, “visual is magic…art is magic…people need…[the] hardest visuals that jump in your face…am I going to put [Mayor DeBlasio] on there with an angel halo on his head? It’s satirical. You know…the dollar money signs in his eyes..the fangs, the pupils, the horns…the devil. The devil does bad things.”
The huge yellow and black signs were held up by Staten Islanders seeking to help alert their neighbors to the presence of the speed cameras. While everyone wants school zone accidents and reckless driving to stop, many islanders feel this is the wrong way to go about doing so. Volunteers headed to the streets holding these signs, hoping to call attention to both the predatory speed cameras, as well as the issue of school zone speeding.
Staten Islander Scott Nicholls combined efforts with LoBaido, encouraging islanders to place yellow ribbons on utility poles near speed cameras, communicating his message with the Facebook group “Staten Island Speed Cameras.” This is community teamwork, truly.
Streetblog.org writer Gersh Kuntzman titled his piece on the effort, “Staten Island Vigilantes Helping Reckless Drivers Avoid Accountability,” demonstrating that not all are in favor of the citizens’ action. Perhaps we can all agree that the choice of a yellow ribbon was a poor one, as Kuntzman writes, “yellow ribbons [are] a symbol of hope for returning POWs and service-members, as well as for prisoners and families of traffic violence victims.” This is a valid point; maybe the ribbons should have been red, as they will put drivers’ checkbooks “in the red”?
And now, fines are not even the worst of it. The city can literally take your vehicle, acquired through months or years of saving up from daily hard work at a job. Will there be errors in decoding the license plates? Will there be false positives? We just don’t know, but of course, technology is not fail-proof.
The Dangerous Vehicle Abatement Law now requires vehicle owners to complete a Department of Transportation course focusing on vehicle safety if their vehicle is caught by the cameras speeding in fifteen school zones in one year.
A vehicle caught by five red light cameras in one year will also necessitate the vehicle owner completing this same course. Failure to do so may result in seizure and impoundment of such motor vehicles.
While Mayor DeBlasio sternly warned city residents that, “[NY is] putting all drivers on notice that if you behave recklessly behind the wheel, there will be real consequences.” But what if the vehicle is being operated by a driver other than the registered owner?
While it is true that great care must be taken when permitting anyone to borrow a car, it doesn’t follow that the vehicle owner is a “reckless driver” if the borrower commits a traffic infraction.
Presently, this new law would affect ~5,000 vehicles, yearly. It will become effective on October 27, 2020. While drivers can claim that someone else was driving their car, truck, or SUV, to avoid having to risk seizure and impoundment, it’s unclear how this might be proven, short of a notarized written statement by the actual guilty party. And even then, who knows whether that will be acceptable.
There are presently 80+ fixed speed camera sites in “School Zones” on Staten Island. Additionally, forty mobile units on DOT vehicles can be moved around the city and placed randomly each day, as long as they are close enough to schools. Does that mean the cameras need be placed directly outside a school?
Hardly. The law permits the speed cam placement as far as a quarter of a mile away from a school, as the crow flies.
Staten Islanders do have Councilman Steven Matteo and Councilman Joe Borelli, mid-island and south-shore Republicans, respectively, on their side. Both City Council members oppose the new law. City Councilman Steve Matteo wonders why the city wouldn’t simply post signs alerting drivers to the presence of the cameras, if slowing down drivers is the real goal, and not revenue generation.
Matteo mused, “God forbid that one time there was an accident. Wouldn’t you rather them slow down, give them the heads up? I don’t understand what’s wrong with giving someone the heads up for the hope that they’ll slow down.”
Council Member Joe Borelli made the following comments on February 11th, 2020 tweeting “Is 36 mph speeding…In the suburbs”
Is 36 mph speeding though ? In the suburbs
— Joe Borelli (@JoeBorelliNYC) February 12, 2020
and “Today, the council passed a bill allowing the seizure of your car after a it is caught going as slow as 36 mph 15 times. Pee on a subway car 15 times and you don’t get your subway privileges revoked; write graffiti or set the train on fire, you may get Mets tickets.”
Today, the council passed a bill allowing the seizure of your car after a it is caught going as slow as 36 mph 15 times. Pee on a subway car 15 times and you don’t get your subway privileges revoked; write graffiti or set the train on fire, you may get Mets tickets.
— Joe Borelli (@JoeBorelliNYC) February 11, 2020
Are the speed cameras effective? Statistics show that they indeed are, with violations rapidly falling almost 70% after only a year and a half of operation in a static location. But would other speeding deterrents work better?
Such alternatives include flashing yellow lights active during school hours, large, prominently placed signs (along with audible beeps or tones) warning drivers to slow down in front of schools, and clearly demarcated speed bumps?
Why wait for drivers to repeatedly speed through an intersection, endangering kids, parents, teachers, and school administrators during that 18 month learning period? Maybe this statistic is actually proof that the idea that speed cams are effective is worth challenging.
This learning curve is too slow. During that 18-month period, pedestrian strikes, injuries, and deaths, can still occur. And of course, out-of-town drivers have zero learning curve; they may only pass through a school zone once. Not having clearly demarcated safety areas, in lieu of hidden speed traps, seems a disservice to the public. Of course, many will then go on to wonder whether the motivation here is strictly monetary.
And what about the speed camera trap in Graniteville, on Goethals Road North, in back of the School of Civic Leadership? While this site is one of the city’s most lucrative, no child is ever going to cross that street, as there is a highway on the other side!
And, drivers exiting the highway may not decelerate fast enough, and end up ticketed because they did not brake fat enough. There are multiple issues with this, and that’s just in reference to one of many speed camera locations.
No one is saying that racing past the gates of a school is wise, responsible, or even safe. However, to slyly place speed cameras a quarter-mile away, often hidden behind a tree or utility pole, in the hopes of “catching” a speeder, does very little in the moment, to abate reckless driving or save lives.
A more immediate solution is called for, clearly, and the logistics of this all gives pause to the idea that the cameras serve to generate revenues first, and save lives second.
Vision Zero, the city’s ambitious plan to stem the number of pedestrian traffic fatalities, may need a new approach. Also, statistics show that Staten island had zero fatalities in school zones, as compared to other borough, each of which had quite a few.
Also, speeding in school zones doesn’t seem to the the biggest issue to most casual observers. Instead, parents double and triple parking, waiting to pick up their kids, emerges as a top threat, as children pile out of school and into the streets, darting between cars, and often not using the crosswalks.
However, speeding is certainly an issue. And, when pedestrians are struck, the speed of the colliding vehicle will impact their chance of survival. Of course, the City of New York must work tirelessly toward finding solutions. But flashing lights, radar signs notifying motorists of their speed, speed bumps, and other technologies inform drivers best.
If we really want to improve safety for all, fixed ideas will never help. The community needs to have a say in the outcome, and flexibility and adaptability on the part of City Hall, is an essential component. “Feel good” measures do not save lives, but they look good. We cannot concern ourselves with appearance when it comes to traffic safety; on this matter, substance alone is significant.