Jan. 31 2019

Governor Cites Research in Speed Cameras Policy

In January, the Office of Governor Andrew Cuomo announced legislation to double the number of speed cameras in New York City school zones from 140 to 290. The announcement represents a u-turn for the city, which only last summer saw speed camera enforcement suspended after hitting an impasse with Republican legislators in Albany.

In a press release about the new legislation, Governor Cuomo pointed to “indisputable evidence that speed cameras save lives.” Among those contributing to this body of evidence is Peter Muennig, professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia Mailman. A study Muennig and colleagues published last year in the journal Injury Prevention found that speed cameras benefit both the city’s overall health and, by reducing medical costs, its bottom line. The findings push back against arguments questioning the value of the cameras, which cost $140,000 to install and an additional $30,000 in annual operating costs.

Conducted through the Columbia Mailman School’s Global Research Analytics for Population Health (GRAPH) program, the study sought to calculate the benefits of expanding the number of speed cameras in the city. If we wish to prevent deaths and injuries, how many cameras is the right number?

According to their analysis, the city could realize an optimal level of financial savings and injury prevention when the number of speed cameras was increased to 300. Above that number, any added cameras would provide diminishing returns.

“The governor’s plan gets the city very close to the optimal number,” says Muennig. “You can think of this threshold as analogous to ‘herd immunity’ protections provided by vaccines. An optimal level of speed cameras provides a kind of immunity against injuries from traffic violations, and in doing so saves the city a lot of money.”

The study calculates that over the lifetime of a population of New Yorkers, a system of 300 speed cameras would provide savings adding up to $1.2 billion once you account for averted medical costs from motor vehicle injuries and medical and funeral expenses for those killed in crashes.  Tickets issued by speed cameras are also more difficult to refute than other speeding tickets, potentially reducing court costs. Muennig’s team did not consider the revenue generated by the cameras because, from the view of society as a whole, these monies do not represent a net gain or loss. 

True to Governor Cuomo’s January statement, speed cameras also extend the lives of New Yorkers. According to Muennig’s study, New Yorkers would gain 7,000 quality-adjusted life years, a measure representing a year of life lived in perfect health. In theory, additional benefits could be realized if speed cameras were active 24 hours a day; currently, they are only operational around school times and some weekend activities like sporting events.  

In the summer of 2018, despite support by the governor and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, the State Senate withheld funding for a bill to expand the number of speed cameras in the city. Most of the cameras were effectively turned off for several weeks until the Governor signed an executive order to reactive them in time for the start of the school year.

Since speed cameras were fully deployed in 2014 as part of the city’s Vision Zero plan to eliminate traffic fatalities and serious injuries, the devices have issued tickets to more than 4.5 million drivers—about 10 times the number written by all of the city’s police officers. Statistics show that only 17 percent of drivers get a second speed-camera ticket, evidence that the devices deter speeding.

Last year, the city saw its fewest traffic fatalities on record, with deaths down by one-third since 2013, the year before Vision Zero was implemented. Alongside speed cameras, the city has invested in a package of safety strategies, from the creation of protected bike lanes and pedestrian plazas to education efforts around driving after dark.

In 2014, Muennig, who has a longstanding interest in improving safety in urban environments, published a study in the American Journal of Public Health examining the Safe Routes to School Program, a federal effort to improve pedestrian safety in intersections near schools. That study, much like his more recent research on speed cameras, found the program was a boon to both health and the economy. 

“To make our city a safer and healthier place to live, we need to start by protecting vulnerable groups like school children,” he says. “Doing so will help safeguard everyone.”