More drivers with fake plates avoiding traffic cameras, costing NYC up to $75 million

Misplaced or concealed license plates have helped drivers evade red lights or speeding tickets 1.5million times since the pandemic hit in March 2020 – and the problem has gotten worse in recent years months, according to records obtained by THE CITY.

City Department of Transportation officials say delinquent drivers are doing everything from bending their license plates to putting plastic covers on them to spraying various chemicals to prevent cameras from reading them accurately. .

The problem has long plagued cameras, but the number of unreadable images has risen from around 1% or less of all tickets issued each month from January 2016 to March 2020 to nearly 4% in December 2021, the highest month. recent available via obtained records. through the Freedom of Information Act.

At stake is approximately $75 million in possible fines never issued due to missing, temporary, damaged or obscured plates. However, some of these possible tickets are for exempt vehicles like ambulances and are never issued.

Besides the potential loss of revenue, street safety advocates and city transportation officials worry that drivers whose license plates are blocked may feel emboldened to break other laws on the road putting people in danger. hazard.

“Drivers using illegal license plates to evade liability make our city more dangerous, while taking away revenue from vital street improvements,” said Danny Harris, executive director of nonprofit advocacy group Transportation Alternatives. . “As New York City faces an increase in traffic violence, city and state leaders must investigate and end the proliferation of illegal plates.”

Across the country, the number of driving fatalities has soared to near-record highs during the pandemic over the past two years. In New York City, empty streets have led to increased speeding and increased death tolls.

The problem is getting worse: Traffic crashes killed 59 people in the first three months of this year, according to a new report from Transportation Alternatives. That’s a 44% spike from the same time last year, and the deadliest start since 2014.

New York State law prohibits placing anything on a vehicle’s license plate.

The overall spike in missed plates comes despite repeated crackdowns promised by the de Blasio administration and as Mayor Eric Adams, a former NYPD captain, touts a tough-on-crime policy approach.

The number of road deaths – 266, including pedestrians and cyclists killed by cars and trucks – peaked in 2021, de Blasio’s last year in office, the most since 2013, when 293 people were killed. in the streets of the city.

Window opening

For years, some safe streets advocates have called on the NYPD and the city sheriff’s office to do more to target fraudsters.

Last month, Adams asked the state legislature to give the city more power to operate the cameras 24/7. Currently, speed cameras can only be “active Monday through Friday, 6:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., and the program is due to expire this year,” according to the press release.

Legislation to expand the city’s camera powers is expected to be drafted shortly, said state Sen. Andrew Gounardes (D-Brooklyn), who noted state lawmakers have been focusing on the budget these days. last weeks.

Adams held the March 25 press conference at the intersection of Ocean Avenue and Beverley Road near PS 245 in Flatbush, Brooklyn. It was the site where “the driver of a speeding car ran a red light at high speed, ramming a second car into the side” on August 18, 2020, according to the press release.

Drivers passed a speed camera near the intersection of East Tremont and Anthony avenues in the Bronx on April 15, 2022.
Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

The 3:30 a.m. crash killed 18-year-old Isaiah Benloss in the back seat of the second car. Speed ​​cameras were disabled at that time, as required by state law.

The allegedly fleeing driver had temporary, untraceable New Jersey license plates that police could not find. No arrests were made.

“My job is to keep New Yorkers from dying on our streets, and I need Albany to give me the tools to do my job,” Adams told reporters, urging state lawmakers to give him the so-called “home control” on speed. and red light cameras.

According to DOT data, about 30 percent of fatal crashes last year occurred in areas that had cameras but at times when they couldn’t operate.

Overall, the DOT says there has been about a 72 percent drop in speed at locations with speed cameras and an about 80 percent drop in red lights in areas with speed cameras, according to annual program reports.

As for obscured license plates, the DOT does not publicly post the number of times its cameras are unable to read license plates. THE CITY filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the data last August.

The FOIL department said it would take at least six months to compile the data, then never responded when that estimated date passed. The DOT press office finally sent out the numbers earlier this month.

In total, the city has about 1,960 fixed speed cameras in 750 school zones established by state lawmakers under the Speed ​​Camera Act of 2019. Separately, the city operates 40 mobile cameras in these same areas.

The DOT plans to continue adding cameras until it reaches a total of 2,220, with the remaining 220 to be installed this year, according to DOT spokesman Scott Gastel.

The DOT also operates 223 red light cameras at 150 intersections, a number that has been static since 2009. Bridge and tunnel toll cameras are not included in this data.

The DOT contracted with American Traffic Solutions, known as Verra Mobility since 2018, to administer and maintain speed cameras, red light cameras and bus lane cameras. The Arizona-based company is being paid $367,163,436 under a three-year contract from January 2022 to December 31, 2024, according to city records.

The company does not receive a percentage of revenue from fines, DOT officials pointed out.

Fairness in enforcement

Some of the transgressors are regularly parked near police stations, according to Streetsblog, which held a “March Madness”-style contest. Last month, the transportation news site spotted several cars around train stations with out-of-state license plates and a history of parking or speeding.

The Twitter feed PlacardCorruption daily publishes examples of illegal vehicle practices such as obscured plates, fake permits and blatant parking on sidewalks or in front of fire hydrants. Senior city officials tasked with enforcing the rules who are tagged in the posts rarely, if ever, respond.

From January to March this year, cops issued 1,280 plate-related travel violation tickets, up from 4,355 in the same quarter last year, according to NYPD traffic data. Overall, moving tickets fell 5% in the quarter.

The NYPD’s drop in overall in-person traffic enforcement comes as other police departments across the country have moved away from arresting drivers for low-level violations. Data showed cops have for years disproportionately targeted black drivers, sometimes with fatal consequences.

“Fairness must play a role in road safety,” said AAA spokesman Robert Sinclair. “It’s unfair and leads to dangerous and dangerous situations when you target people from a particular population for arrest maybe when everything is fine.”

Regarding the larger problem of obscured license plates, Sinclair speculated that drivers pressured by rising gas prices and inflation might be looking to save money by dodging tickets.

“It’s the global economy,” he said. “It’s tough everywhere you look and gasoline is one of the main reasons we see such high inflation. This could be an attempt at economy by unscrupulous drivers.

Street safety issues are usually addressed by one of the three Es: education, law enforcement or engineering, he added.

The city’s DOT has never conducted an education campaign specifically related to the licensing issue.

In an effort to improve street safety, Transportation Alternatives and other advocates are urging the Adams administration to “fully fund and expand New York’s street plan.”

The city council has committed $3.1 billion in funding for the plan which calls for the construction of hundreds of miles of protected bike and bus lanes as well as one million square feet of car-free pedestrian space.

The group is also pushing for the passage of the Crash Victims Rights and Safety Act to allow lower speed limits to be set.

Meanwhile, on Saturday, Adams announced what he described as a “historic investment of more than $900 million in traffic safety” over the next five years. Much of the money will go towards more protected cycle paths, improved bus lanes and the creation of car-free places, the mayor said.

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