For victims of speeding, increased traffic cameras welcome
On Aug. 7, 2014, Dulcie Canton, 39, was biking from her friend’s apartment in Bushwick to her home in Bedford-Stuvesant when she was struck from behind by a speeding driver. “I heard an engine revving up behind me, and next thing I know, I’m flying up in the air. I fell down on the street and blacked out,” she said.
Canton, a lifetime resident of New York City who says she had been biking nearly every day since 2011, was rushed to the hospital after sustaining a broken right shoulder, a broken left wrist and a possible brain hemorrhage.
Steve Vaccaro, a lawyer who represents seriously injured cyclists and pedestrians, met Canton at the hospital, where her condition had stabilized. He then headed over to the crime scene at the intersection of Bleecker Street and Wilson Avenue in Bushwick, where neighbors who witnessed the crash recovered a rear-view mirror that was sheared from the vehicle after colliding with Canton. Vaccaro also obtained video footage from a superintendent of an apartment near the intersection, whose surveillance cameras caught the hit and run on tape. View the surveillance footage of the crash here: https://vimeo.com/105250259.
Along with the serial number from the mirror, they were able to positively identify the Chevy Camaro that hit Canton.
But the driver was never prosecuted. Canton’s friend, who was with her at the time of the crash and lives in the neighborhood, says he sees the same Camaro speeding through the same narrow residential streets today.
This lack of prosecution is actually not unusual. “Hit and runs happen so frequently,” said Vaccaro, “that it would be a tremendous amount of work to prosecute them all. So unless it’s a case of fatality or near-fatality, neither the NYPD nor the district attorney is willing to prosecute.”
This points to a major problem in enforcing speed violations in the city — there is simply not enough manpower to issue the number of tickets that would substantially reduce speeding. But new legislation might change that.
Assemblymember Deborah Glick recently introduced the Every School Speed Safety Camera Act (Assembly Bill 9861), which would allow the installation of speed cameras in every city school district and keep them running for 24 hours. Currently, Albany limits speed cameras to 140 in NYC, and they are only allowed to function during school hours, rendering them useless after dark and over the weekend. If the new bill is passed, permission to install cameras will be transferred from Albany to City Hall, which can potentially install a speed camera at each of NYC’s 2,000 schools.
Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposed budget already includes funding to install the cameras.
According to a data news report by WNYC, the existing 140 cameras have issued 471,625 speeding tickets in 2014, compared to 117,767 speeding tickets issued by officers. According to the same report, more than $23.5 million was issued in fines, and crashes with injuries near cameras declined by 13.5 percent.
Caroline Samponaro, deputy director of Transportation Alternatives, which will advocate for the passage of the bill at a City Hall rally this Thursday, stresses that speed cameras are not about making money for the city. “You’ll see some initial revenue, but then it drops off, and you want it to go away because that means you’re changing drivers’ behavior,” she said.
Currently, drivers caught speeding on camera have to pay a $50 fine, but do not incur infraction points on their license. This will remain the same if the new bill is passed.
The installation of speed cameras near schools makes sense because speeding is the No. 1 cause of preventable death among children. But safety advocates argue that while schoolchildren are among the most vulnerable, they are not the only ones who need protection from speeding drivers.
There were 269 traffic-related fatalities in NYC in 2014, with a decrease to 242 fatalities in 2015. Roughly half of those who died in traffic-related accidents were pedestrians. Cyclists represent a smaller percentage of deaths, yet the danger posed by speeding vehicles remains.
Dulcie Canton was out of work for a month due to her injuries, and by the time she was able to return to her job at a bike shop, they had gone out of business. Because the driver didn’t stop to exchange insurance information, she ran into major complications with her insurance provider, and as the medical bills piled on, Canton struggled to pay rent. She narrowly avoided eviction by creating a Go Fund Me account, which was shared on social media by community cycling groups. Canton underwent physical therapy three times a week and met with a social worker to help cope with the PTSD she experienced each time she stepped onto the streets. “I never imagined anything like this could happen to me,” she said. “I could have died.”
Others have. On April 15, Lauren Davis, 34, was killed cycling down Classon Avenue in Clinton Hill, and less than a week later, cyclist James Gregg, 33, was fatally struck by an 18-wheeler in Park Slope. It is unclear whether speeding played a role in these incidents, but each of them took place on a residential street in Brooklyn where traffic enforcement can be problematic.
“Very few police officers joined the force because they wanted to write traffic tickets,” said Vaccaro, who pointed out that many residential streets are too narrow for cops to set up speed enforcement operations. Today, most speeding violations occur on or near highways, where it’s safer and easier set up speed traps. With the passage of Glick’s bill, many of the outer borough streets that are difficult to enforce would become subject to speed camera installation.
“If the police don’t want to do it, why not use cameras in residential neighborhoods? This is really a win-win for everyone, except people who want to speed,” Vaccaro said.
But some of those who want to speed have been able to challenge the legality of automated camera enforcement based on the grounds that it violates the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution. While speed cameras have been increasingly implemented in cities across the U.S., there are a handful of cases in which they’ve been outlawed. In 2013, an Ohio judge ruled that traffic cameras were unconstitutional, commenting that, “It’s a scam the motorist cannot win.” Similar challenges to traffic cameras arose in Missouri, and Tennessee banned them outright in 2015.
Some who challenge the legality of speed cameras claim that they presume guilt, while others are reacting to a perceived invasion of privacy by the government, claiming that this is another way for Big Brother to keep tabs on civilians.
On this point, safety advocates side with the 1916 Supreme Court decision that “driving is a privilege, not a right,” and that safety outweighs privacy concerns.
“Hundreds of thousands of children are put in harm’s way each morning and afternoon due to dangerous driver behavior near schools,” said City Council Transportation Committee Chairman Ydanis Rodriguez. “With speed cameras placed near every school, we can do more than ever before to account for the safety of our most precious New Yorkers. This is necessary and overdue; it will save lives and change driver behavior for the better. I call on my colleagues in Albany to do the right thing and pass this needed law.”
The Transportation Alternatives rally in support of Assembly Bill 9861 will take place on the steps of City Hall on Thursday, June 9, at 9 a.m. “The rally is our way of standing with our coalition of support to send a message to Albany legislators that we need to act,” said Caroline Samponaro, deputy director of Transportation Alternatives.
Dulcie Canton says she’ll be there. She plans to ride her bike.