A recent article published by Newsday argues that crash data does not support the location of speed safety cameras installed near schools throughout Nassau County. The “computer analysis” states that cameras have been placed in “dozens of areas with no history of speed-related accidents.” Of the 76 school zones that Newsday analyzed, they found that only 19 had seen any speed-related crashes between 2009 and 2013.
Newsday’s methodology used an extremely narrow definition of “school zone.” The analysis defines a school zone as marked areas of roads near schools where drivers are instructed to slow down, which essentially limits the analysis to a small sample of cherry-picked street segments near schools. This was based on the highly questionable tactic of “basing the length of each zone on a review of photos of traffic signs in the area taken by Google’s Street View Cameras. When such imagery was not available, Newsday created school zones that were the maximum length allowed by law.”
The safety of a school zone monitored by camera technology extends beyond the designated school zone and is an added benefit for the technology. Wherever speed cameras have been installed, researchers have found that automated enforcement prompts drivers to slow down both before and after drivers enter areas monitored by cameras. This phenomenon, known as the distance halo effect, means that drivers are altering their behavior outside camera range as well. This is particularly important because children traveling to and from school are not confined to sidewalks and crossings solely within school zones.
For these reasons, Tri-State’s analysis used a single definition of “school zone” that encompasses a full quarter mile buffer around a school – the maximum allowable area according to state law. This method paints a more realistic picture of the safety conditions along routes that school age children actually take and vehicles travel. Our finding that 40 percent of the pedestrian fatalities occurred within the maximum allowable school zone is determined by state law and is based on a legal definition, not Tri-State’s interpretation, unlike the subjective school zone created for the Newsday analysis. While not everyone killed in these areas were school-aged children as Tri-State notes, it is irrefutable that 14 pedestrians were killed by cars in these zones.
The whole point of these enforcement mechanisms is to enhance safety for all, but especially for children. While Nassau County should have conducted more analyses and studies and worked with the school community and other stakeholders to determine the best locations, there is sound logic for placing cameras around schools. The fact that 40 percent of Nassau County’s pedestrian fatalities occurred within a quarter mile of a school should raise a huge red flag for Long Island residents, parents, drivers, and legislators. Instead, the entire safety message has been eclipsed in an effort to discredit our analysis.
We stand by our analysis as Newsday stands behind theirs. We also stand by the fact that arguing over the definition of school zones is an arbitrary exercise that serves only to prove one point: “The best argument for traffic cameras is their opponents.” The simple truth is that pedestrians are dying on Nassau County’s streets—nearly 250 since 2005, averaging 30 per year according to data provided by the Federal Highway Fatality Reporting System—and the method that shows the most dramatic safety gains is now facing a repeal.
Tri-State agrees with many of the frustrations and issues raised during the discussion of this program, but while the rollout of the program may have been flawed, the data is indisputable: speeding around school zones is a rampant problem in Nassau County. Over 424,000 citations were given for driving in excess of a posted speed limit in a school zone. Rather than giving in to the arguments of a few selfish, lawbreaking drivers who refuse to slow down in areas designated solely to protect children, Nassau County elected officials should be advocating for better engineering and enforcement strategies to improve safety on streets countywide, and revenue from any camera technology program should be dedicated to engineering improvements in areas where they are placed, not for unrelated purposes such as filling general budget gaps. For example, Albany’s red light camera program stipulates that “All funds in excess of the budgeted revenue… shall be transferred to a Traffic Safety Fund.”
TSTC is a nonprofit policy and advocacy group that does not receive funds or contributions from camera technology manufacturers. One of the goals of our mission is to make roadways safer for all users via engineering, enforcement, and education.