NEW YORK CITY -- Pictures don't lie, said Raymond Blossom, so when he saw the ones of his cab running a red light in Manhattan, he figured who was he to argue?
Blossom got the photos -- and a ticket -- in the mail from New York City's Department of Transportation under an unusual program to catch red-light runners. His cab was one of 450,000 vehicles captured on film since December 1993 by cameras wired to stoplights.
"Pretty effective," Blossom said of the program. "It makes things a little bit safer."
The cameras have generated a total of $18 million in fines and, between 1994 and 1995, led to an almost 20 percent drop in red-light running at the handful of intersections that have them.
Based on that kind of success, local government and police officials in Maryland want to create a similar program here, but so far they've faced a resistant General Assembly. Some Maryland lawmakers worry about Big Brotherism and violating motorists' privacy.
In New York, the cameras do not seem to be provoking such angst. "They've paid for themselves, and they've had a deterrent effect," said City Transportation Commissioner Christopher R. Lynn.
"People really are enthusiastic about the program," said New York Assemblyman Ivan Lafayette, whose district is in Queens. "They think when they see someone deliberately go through a red light,it's insulting."
It's also dangerous.
To Tom Amico, 36, an advertising agency vice president in Manhattan, the red-light program is far less intrusive than what he has read of the surveillance cameras in Baltimore that scan for street crime.
"That seems to be more intrusive of a person's privacy than [photographing] an anonymous motorist who's already in a dangerous situation," he said.
As Amico suggested, the offender himself is not photographed in New York. The cameras work only when the stoplight is being run, and shoot only the rear of the car. (This should reassure those Maryland legislators who feared the pictures would capture such situations as a married man with a girlfriend in the car -- and end up in divorce proceedings).
Like a parking ticket, the fine is the responsibility of the car's owner, regardless of who was behind the wheel. The ticket is not a "moving violation" and does not appear on the owner's driving record. Auto insurance companies cannot use the information to raise rates, Lafayette said.
In fact, insurers haven't even tried to obtain such records, said Rudy Popolizio, the city transportation agency's director of systems engineering and management. The city will release records if subpoenaed, but that has happened only a couple of times in accident cases, he said.
Violators pay quickly
The photographic evidence is apparently overwhelming. Violators pay a whopping 80 percent of the tickets, most after the first notice. The collection rate for parking tickets is considerably lower, Lynn said.
Although New Yorkers are not known for shyness, only 5 percent request a hearing to contest the $50 ticket. The vast majority of them lose.
That may be because the city sends tickets only when the violation is clear. In a windowless room in Queens, employees study each photograph carefully, using a zoom lens to see the license plate. They will not send a ticket if the photo quality is poor or if a violation is not obvious.
Besides private cars, the cameras have captured taxicabs, city buses and even government-owned cars, including some driven by Transportation Department employees. Bus drivers lose a day's pay, while other city workers must pay the ticket.
For some motorists, red-light running is a bad habit.
"We had one lady who got three tickets in one day in the same vehicle," said Veronica Tate, supervisor of the Red Light Violation Monitoring Program.
The city is now analyzing accidents caused by red-light running to determine the impact of the 3-year-old program. Last year, overall traffic fatalities from various causes declined almost 2 percent, continuing a downward trend that began in 1991.
An open secret
Officials are coy about the camera locations. Only 18 of the 11,000 intersections with signals have a camera, and they don't want motorists to behave themselves only at those sites.
But, New York being New York, and government being government, the locations are an open secret. A newspaper has published the sites, and a police officer even tried to sell the information.
Queens Boulevard, one of the more dangerous arterial streets in the city, is home to at least one camera. With so many other distractions, a motorist could easily fail to notice the 10-foot gray pole in the median, 50 feet before the stop light. The pole supports a box containing a $50,000 camera system that "communicates" with the stoplight and wires embedded in the roadway.
Popolizio said it works like this:
When the stoplight turns red, the camera -- aimed toward the light, with the flow of traffic -- receives power that readies it to take a photo.
The camera, loaded with standard 35 mm film, relies on information from two loops of underground wires near the crosswalk or stop line. The loops create a magnetic field that senses the passage of a large metal object -- a vehicle -- as well as its speed. If the car is going fast enough, the camera assumes it's not going to stop and fires off the first of two photos. This picture shows the vehicle from the rear just before it enters the intersection. Up to 1 second later, the camera takes a second shot of the car in the intersection.
The system was designed to prevent the camera from shooting cars that simply stop inside the crosswalk or that are already in the intersection when the light turns red, Popolizio said.
"If we make a mistake, we're making a mistake in favor of the driver," he said.
$2.5 million profit
The program was supposed to break even, but, at the rate of 400 tickets a day, the cameras have produced about $2.5 million in excess of the program's $15.5 million cost over three years.
Employees calibrate the cameras daily and replace the film. With a powerful flash, the cameras work at night as well.
"There should be 20 more of them," said Blossom, the cabbie.
Pub Date: 12/11/96