Depending on who you ask, Christopher Mistron may be one of the most disliked men in Nassau County. As the man behind the 2 year old red-light camera program, Mistron has taken his share of heat from residents tagged for going through a red light. Then he reminds them he’s gotten one or two tickets himself.
“We’ve made so many changes in engineering, its unbelievable,” he said during a presentation to the recently. “And yet despite the changes within the cars, despite the changes on our roadways, there still is a screw loose behind the wheel and that’s what we have to tighten up.”
There are currently 152 red light cameras at 50 intersections in Nassau County. A petition to was recently denied by the state legislature. Each camera costs $5,000 per location per month to operate.
A red light camera ticket cannot incur points on a person’s license since courts have ruled against taking photos of drivers. Violations cost $50 fine plus a surcharge of $15 for every ticket because of the county’s processing cost. Nassau does not mail out the citation, outsourcing the mailing to an Arizona vendor. The county receives 100 percent of the fine due to leasing agreement with the vendor, who receives a flat rate regardless of how many tickets are issued. The revenue from the cameras was supposed to be earmarked for social services, but has by members of the .
Due to a recent court ruling saying that tickets can be handled by the traffic and parking violations department, the county can now . It had previously only placed cameras on county roads. Mistron said that revenue sharing between the county and the local municipalities was not an option was because “all the expense is ours.” State roads were also added to the list when permission was obtained.
“We found that through the years injures and fatalities on the roadways are amazing when you really look at the numbers,” Mistron said. Approximately 40,000 fatalities and over 1 million injuries occur per year on U.S. roads, with 90-100 fatalities in Nassau per year – mostly DWIs – and 18,000 injuries.
After New York City introduced red light cameras in 1994, Mistron began researching a program for Nassau 2 years later, but was shelved multiple times before getting the green light from then-county executive Tom Suozzi.
While many would argue, Mistron said that the reasoning behind the program was safety and to change drivers’ behavior.
“When we put this together is it is not an “I got ya,’ this was not set up for you to fail, this was not set up for you to just get a ticket.”
In an effort at transparency, all locations of the red light cameras were announced. “I want you to know where my cameras are,” Mistron said. “I want you to behave differently when you come to those locations and I want you to understand that the reason we placed them where we placed them is based on accidents.”
Using an example in Baldwin where a camera once observed 80 violations per day, Mistron said that camera is now issuing about three tickets per day. Within the next year the county will evaluating whether to move any camera locations. Cameras are required to stay in the same location for at least 3 years.
In order to be “as fair as possible,” video is also recorded of every incident from 10 seconds before to 10 seconds afterwards. Since Aug. 9, 2009, the cameras have captured over 1 million images and issued 420,000 tickets.
“We will also use that for the purposes of making sure that we will not issue a citation unless we know it should be issued,” Mistron said.
This year the number of tickets issued in the winter was down sharply since cameras could not see the white lines due to the heavy snowfall.
Initial locations were chosen with safety of police officers in mind. “Some of the first locations we chose, there is not one safe location for a police officer to pull that car over,” Mistron said, citing a location in Oceanside where four police cars were struck during stops.
Mistron also showed cringe-inducing video of crashes, near misses and more while he went over some of his finer points about what is and what was not a violation. The average speed of the accidents in the video were said to be between 20 and 40 mph.
“In order to receive a violation, you have to cross the white line after the light turns red,” he said, noting that if a vehicle is already in the intersection making a left hand turn when the light is red, they will not receive a ticket.
Still, complaints abound, mostly about right on red infractions, which Mistron said the county is now able to enforce due to video, seeing the difference between a full stop and a roll-through. When asked, he said they “have not really witnessed” any incident where a person stops to obey the law and been rear-ended, but the number of rear-end crashes has risen since the program was started. Mistron noted that there had been a decrease in the severity of accidents.
According to the National Highway Safety Administration, the true cost of an injury is $12 million when all economic activity including loss of income, care and services are taken into account. “We’ve lost their contribution to society,” Mistron said.