NEWARK — In a state where driving anywhere is not a sport for the fainthearted, Route 1 south of Elizabeth is a particularly challenging stretch where the temptation to hit the gas as the last, precious seconds of a left-turn light dwindle away is almost unbearable.
Linden Mayor Richard Gerbounka knows from personal experience, and he knows that the red-light cameras his town installed about a year and a half ago have made people think twice before they try to cheat the light.
“They’ve been extremely effective” in reducing accidents, Gerbounka said this week. “It’s raised my own awareness. When I go through intersections where red-light cameras are, I’m not pushing the light like I used to.”
Gerbounka and officials in nearly two dozen other towns have been scrambling to re-check their red-light cameras after a state Department of Transportation department announcement this week suspended use of 63 of the 85 cameras statewide. The Department of Transportation claimed yellow lights at those intersections may have been calibrated in a way that did not allow drivers enough time to brake safely.
For Linden, that has meant taking a radar gun and tracking hundreds of cars as they pass through the four approaches to each of the three intersections that have the cameras, then checking the length of the yellow light based on the speed that at least 85 percent of the cars are going, as required by the legislation that created the camera program.
According to the DOT, many of the towns have been using posted speed limits to time their yellow lights, which does not conform to the law.
“It’s a logistical nightmare, but it’s something we’ve got to conform to,” Gerbounka said.
Another mess could be looming if any of the lights are found to be not in compliance. A DOT spokesman said it will be up to the towns to decide how to handle violations produced by those cameras, but several officials interviewed this week said they were still formulating plans.
What bothers Gerbounka and others is that they were told their lights were properly timed when they installed the cameras, and every six months since as they submitted re-certifications as required by law.
“This is very puzzling because we’ve been in compliance,” Piscataway Mayor Brian Wahler said. “If anything, we’ve been erring on the side of giving additional time at intersections than is required by law.”
The DOT did not respond to a request for an explanation on whether towns were misinformed initially about the yellow-light standards.
“Whoever made the call in 2008 or 2009 blew it, either out of ignorance or poor judgment,” said Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon, a critic of the camera program. “Maybe it was a genuine error. But there aren’t two standards; we’re just ensuring the proper standards are adhered to.”
When the pilot program was approved in 2008, it was opposed by some legislators who criticized the cameras as too intrusive and as a transparent ploy to raise revenue for cash-strapped towns.
They certainly have been effective at generating cash, as the example of Monroe Township in Gloucester County demonstrates. The town’s one red-light camera, at the intersection of Routes 42 and 322, produced more than $1 million in paid violations from May 2011 through the end of this May, according to Business Administrator Kevin Heydel. The tickets are $85, of which the town gets $46; the town also has to split paying $18,800 per month with the county to the camera vendor, Heydel said.
Newark was the first city in the state to activate the cameras in late 2009, and now has them at 19 intersections. Jack Nata, who heads the city’s Division of Traffic and Signals, said Thursday that all 19 of the intersections had been checked and that all had met the 85 percent standard. He was awaiting approval from the DOT, which he expected to come Friday or Monday.
Nata said accidents at Broad Street and Raymond Boulevard, where the first camera was introduced by Mayor Cory Booker in late 2009, had decreased 74 percent since the camera was installed.
“The overall results show that the red-light cameras are modifying driving behavior in Newark because the number of red-light violators is decreasing even though the number of camera systems is increasing,” Booker said. “We look forward to restarting this vital public safety program within a few days.”