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Traffic Cameras Hit a Red Light with NY Lawmakers

ELIOT SCHIAPARELLI, HOST: It’s only March, and already 57 people have been killed in traffic collisions in New York City. Last month was the deadliest February for traffic crashes in almost a decade and a half. Now new data reveals that part of the cause may be due to an uptick in red-light running. New York City has a solution - red-light cameras. But it’s run into a problem - the state government. Linnea Arden has more.

LINNEA ARDEN, BYLINE: If you’re standing at the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues just outside the Barclays Center in Brooklyn and try to cross the street you need to make it through six lanes of speeding cars and trucks. Just a few weeks ago a pedestrian was struck and killed there. The intersection is now known as a “death trap” by locals. So Brooklynite Ruby Shah has a strategy.

RUBY SHAH: I make pretty intense eye contact with the driver.

ARDEN: Why do you do that?

SHAH: So that they know that they should stop. It's either that, or I like put my hands out. I make it very clear that I'm crossing and that they can’t stop me.

ARDEN: The city has been using red-light cameras to try to reduce traffic fatalities for years. There are 150 of them spread out throughout the five boroughs. They photograph the driver’s license plates and slaps them with a fifty dollar fine if they run a red light. Now a new study from nonprofit Transportation Alternatives says last year red-light cameras recorded the highest number of violations in almost a decade.

SHAH: I am from Long Island. They have red light cameras everywhere. And they are pretty strict about it. I've gotten one or two red light tickets, you know? So I've been more careful about that since, but I do think they would help significantly.

ARDEN: According to Transportation Alternatives, Shah’s right. Where cameras were installed traffic violations dropped by more than 80 percent. But the city has a problem. Albany. The State governs how many cameras New York City can install. And now that number, 150, only covers 1% of the city’s many intersections. And according to the State, New York City also can’t operate those cameras at night or on weekends, when 40 percent of these collisions happen. Sam Schwartz was the city’s traffic commissioner in the 80s. Now he’s a consultant and behind many of the city’s plans to increase pedestrian safety. He knows about the fight with Albany.

SAM SCHWARTZ: I believe speed cameras, red light cameras, are absolutely essential tools. And we have elected officials who just don't have the courage to do what they know is right.

ARDEN: So city officials say their hands are tied. In a recent tweet Mayor Eric Adams pushed for ‘home rule’ which he says would give the city the local power it needs to install more cameras. But even if it could. There would be another problem. An increase in reckless driving New York is seeing as part of a national trend. Schwartz says it appears to be related to a breakdown in social norms due to the pandemic.

SCHWARTZ: I believe it’s the fatalistic attitude people may have confronted with so much death. You see people doing things that are unfathomable. Somebody getting hit by a car, from somebody doing donuts in the Soho area, you know, that's crazy. I never saw that before. In all my years.

ARDEN: The governor’s office didn’t respond to a request in time for air regarding New York City’s fight for more local control. For now, pedestrian Ruby Shah is going to continue her no-nonsense crossing tactics.

Linnea Arden, Columbia Radio News.


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