On June 24 in Brooklyn, a driver in an SUV struck and killed four-year-old Luz Gonzalez, with many onlookers claiming the incident was a hit-and-run. The New York Police Department disagrees, and has refused to prosecute the driver, sparking multiple street protests. Beyond seeking justice for Gonzalez, activists demand that the city expand the use of speed cameras in school zones, which they hope could prevent further tragedy. Yet precisely at the moment that the community is most sensitive to the risk that dangerous driving poses to children, the New York state legislature shut off 140 school zone speed cameras. Given their unambiguous success in improving traffic safety in school zones, legislators should act now to renew and expand the program.
While there is rare consensus among Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio on the need to preserve and even expand the traffic camera program to 290 cameras, the expansion faces opposition from some members in the Senate. Opposition to the cameras has been lead by Republican State Senator Martin J. Golden—himself a notorious school zone speeder, having received over 10 tickets since 2015 alone—and Democrat State Senator Simcha Felder, who ineffectively used the cameras as a bargaining chip to install police officers in schools.
Since their implementation in 2014 as part of the broader Vision Zero initiative, school zone speed cameras have already substantially improved pedestrian safety in New York’s school zones. According to one study by the New York City Department of Transportation, the number of people killed or seriously injured in crashes in schools zones has fallen by 21 percent to 142 since the cameras came online. This is due in part to the fact that speeding drivers are getting the message: in the first 14 months following implementation of cameras, speeding violations in school zones fell by 66 percent to 35, and have remained far below historical norms since. Among those who get do get tickets, 81 percent slow down after their first and don’t get any more.
Controlling speed is central to improving safety in these zones. An increase from 20 mph to 30 mph increases the risk of pedestrian fatality from five percent to as much as 45 percent. Increase that speed to 40 mph and the death of the stricken pedestrian is a near certainty. In this sense, the existing speed camera policy in New York City may even be too lenient, contrary to the concerns of critics. The current speed limit in all school zones in the city is set to 25 mph, and tickets aren’t administered until a driver is going 11 mph over this limit, a speed at which a stricken child would likely die.
Speed cameras draw on much of what we have learned from the economics of crime. The field began when future Nobel Laureate Gary Becker faced a natural dilemma: Should he park in an illegal spot that’s convenient or a legal spot that’s inconvenient? In that moment, Becker asked himself two further questions: how likely is it that he would be caught, and if caught, how severe would the fine be? In this moment of human laziness, Becker had an epiphany: criminals are rational actors just like anyone else, and they commit crimes when they believe that the benefits outweigh the costs.
This helps to explain why so many people speed. According to a recent study of drivers in Spain, most drivers think there is next to no risk of punishment. While many cities and states respond to speeding epidemics by cranking up the fines, the more effective solution may simply be to ensure that every single speeder will be caught. For this, speed cameras come in handy. This isn’t to say that increasing fines—and heavily publicizing their increase—won’t help to reduce speeding. But this is a much more complicated analysis: if drivers thinks that the risks of getting ticketed or slim to none, fines must hit astronomical highs before they will change their behavior. Worse yet, in the rare event that they are fined, they will receive an onerous bill that can be especially painful for low-income offenders. Speed cameras cut out all this guesswork by consistently and fairly administering a modest fine. This may help to explain the near universal finding that speed cameras reduce speeds and save lives.
Luz Gonzalez isn’t the only child to have been stricken and killed by a speeding driver this year. In the borough of Brooklyn alone, at least nine children have been killed since January. According to one report by the New York City Department of Health, car crashes are now the number one source of deaths resulting from injury for children under 13. Now simply isn’t the time to scale back traffic camera technology that has been proven to inexpensively, fairly, and efficiently save lives. Albany may be inclined to play games with every issue it handles—but legislators have an obligation to get the cameras back on for the millions of children across the Empire State walking home from school.
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