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Albany Common Council Still Examining Red Light Cameras

Back in June, the state legislature gave Albany the green light to launch a five-year pilot program deploying automatic red light ticketing cameras at up to 20 intersections. City officials signed on to the idea, and the common council passed a resolution in support of exploring the program. The proposal has gained steam and, if Tuesday night's council meeting is any indication, could be resolved by year's end.

Red light cameras would be mounted alongside traffic lights, employing sensors to take photos of any vehicle traveling through an intersection when the light is red. The picture is used to identify the vehicle’s license plate number, and a fine is issued to the car’s registrant via mail.

Proponents claim the cameras help prevent crashes and violations in a city where red-light runners are legion. Opponents say the cameras use an inaccurate method of targeting violators and violate civil liberties.

10th Ward Councilwoman Leah Golby chairs the Public Safety Committee, and is the lead supporter of the proposal, which has gained momentum since its introduction earlier this year.    "We had a very good discussion among council members, the public's had an opportunity to speak, to voice their support and voice their concerns. We've received numerous emails from people in support and with concerns. The next step is that we'll have to hold another public safety committee meeting because the ordinance has not yet been voted out of committee."

Speakers on hand Tuesday night included former GOP mayoral candidate Jesse Calhoun, who is now challenging Democrat Pat Fahy for her state Assembly seat, Deputy Police Chief Brendan Cox and Alec Slatky, who authored a AAA study on how other New York municipalities have used red-light cameras.

Calhoun formed the action group “No Albany Red-Light Cameras,” or “N.A.R.C.,” to oppose the measure, which he calls "a regressive tax on people."     "Basically we're just going after a couple of key points, and one is the argument that it increases safety. The science isn't there."

Cox promised that violations caught on film would be reviewed by police before $50 tickets get mailed out.

Slatky explains his study found red-light cameras can trigger an increase in rear end crashes if they're installed at the "wrong" intersections.     "Let's say I got a red-light camera ticket, so I know that this particular intersection has a red-light camera. When I see a yellow light, I might get spooked and brake, even if it would be safe for me to go through, because I don't want that ticket. But the guy behind me thinks I'm gonna go through and then he's gonna follow me. So what happen is, I brake, he keeps on going. And that's when the rear-end collisions happen. And so one way to prevent that is to install warning signs at every camera intersection so you reduce that information disparity."

Slatky recommends Albany should proceed with caution and only target intersections where severe crashes happen. He suggests the city negotiate with a traffic cam vendor to develop a fair payment system that would not be based on the number of tickets issued.    "There are two basic types of payment contracts that you might see. There is one where you pay a flat fee. For operating 20 cameras this year we're going to pay you a million dollars - or whatever the case may be. That is ideal. Because the other option is, we're gonna pay you per ticket, which sounds nice, you can pitch it as, 'Oh well, if there's no red-light runners, there's no violations, we don't pay them anything.' But what usually happens or what could happen, is the opposite, where the red-light camera vendor might then say 'let's approve more violations because more violations is more money for us.' This is a strong financial interest. So what you wanna do is remove the incentive for wrongdoing."

When asked "Can these vendors tinker at all with the timing of the red, yellow or green lights?" Slatky replied  "Theoretically they could. It all depends on how the municipality implements it. Deputy Chief Cox of the Albany Police Department seems to understand those concerns. Thankfully, we haven't really had that be an issue in New York State. It has been an issue elsewhere, where intersection selection and yellow light timing could be controlled by the vendors. It doesn't have to be of course, and if you set it up properly it wouldn't be."

Red light cameras are operational in Rochester, New York City, Yonkers and Nassau and Suffolk counties. Buffalo,  Syracuse, New Rochelle and Mount Vernon have received state permission, but have not yet installed the devices.

Leah Golby says the panel expects to hold at least one more meeting on the legislation before it gets sent to the full council.

Extra content:  

AAA report in PDF format

AAA strongly recommends that Albany look to Nassau County as a model RLC program. Nassau County has seen a reduction in crashes and a reduction in revenue from the RLCs.

Here's a Newsday article from May on the Nassau County program: http://www.scribd.com/doc/240540625/May-2014-Newsday-Article

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.
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