State lawmakers are taking aim at lead-footed drivers in New York City and Long Island with a proposal to authorize hundreds of speed cameras in school zones, a plan touted as a way to protect pedestrians and raise money for government coffers.
The legislation approving cameras, which has the support of Gov. Andrew Cuomo and top lawmakers, is expected to be one of the first items on the agenda when lawmakers return to the Capitol this month.
Traffic fatalities have dropped nationally and in New York state in the past two decades, with traffic deaths in the nation's largest city dropping from 701 in 1990 to 381 in 2000 to 249 in 2011. But Mayor Bill de Blasio argues more can be done to curb what he calls an "epidemic" of traffic injuries and deaths.
And while the new cameras will be a boon to government finances, supporters insist protecting schoolchildren is their primary motivation.
"Granted, there is a financial impact, but we look at it as a safety issue first," said Nassau County Legislator Kevan Abrahams. "It's an effort to slow people down and protect children and families."
New York City successfully petitioned state leaders for permission to install 20 speed cameras in school zones last year as part of a pilot project. This year's proposal would expand the pilot program within the city and bring it to Long Island, where traffic cameras are already used to catch motorists who run red lights.
Under the proposal announced this year, the state would authorize an additional 120 cameras in New York City and 125 in Suffolk and Nassau counties. The program would expire after four years unless lawmakers renew it.
Speed cameras record the license plates of speeding vehicles and a ticket is automatically sent to the registered owner. Unlike red-light cameras, the speed cameras would only be activated during school days and activities. Those caught by the cameras would face a $50 fine. Under current law, motorists can't be charged unless a police officer catches them and issues a ticket.
To patent attorney Chris Garvey, the cameras are a sneaky way for government to raise money off the backs of motorists. The Long Island resident said schools could better prevent accidents by simply turning on a flashing light to alert motorists when children are present.
"Public safety is always the excuse. It's 'do it for the children,'" he said of the speed camera proposal. "It's not that much money (per ticket), so for most people, it's not worth their time. They'll just pay it."
The cameras are expected to raise as much as $50 million or more for cash-strapped Nassau County, which declared a fiscal emergency in 2011 and has been under a state-imposed financial authority for more than a decade. Officials plan to use the money to lift a three-year wage freeze on county workers.
"We're in a wage freeze. We have to hire new police officers," said James Carver, president of the Nassau Police Benevolent Association, which had challenged the wage freeze in court. "So obviously, if there's increased revenue from cameras it's going to help."
Suffolk County officials estimated this year that 20 speed cameras would raise $2 million a year.
In New York City, the cameras are a key part of de Blasio's campaign to reduce traffic fatalities. But his request for permission from state lawmakers appeared to stall last month when it was left out of a nearly $140 billion budget deal.
The delay deprived de Blasio of a political victory in Albany — and angered pedestrian safety advocates, who this past week protested outside of Speaker Sheldon Silver's Manhattan home.
Spokesmen for Cuomo and top lawmakers insist the measure is likely to pass after lawmakers return to the Capitol on April 23.
"Speeding through school zones puts children at risk," Cuomo said about the measure in February, before New York City was added to the legislation. "This is a proposal that will make our schools and communities safer on Long Island, and I urge the legislature to pass it."
Jason Elon, a spokesman for Senate co-leader Jeff Klein, a Democrat, said Klein wants to see speed cameras statewide, so "countless more students, teachers, and parents can get the protection they deserve."
Twelve states and Washington, D.C., have operating speed cameras, according to a review by the Governors Highway Safety Association. Another 12 states have laws specifically prohibiting the devices.