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NYC drivers are taking extreme measures to evade speeding cameras

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

If you didn't want to get speeding tickets, would you, A, stay within the speed limit, or B, affix some plastic to your license plate so speed cameras couldn't read it? Well, in New York City, where thousands of speed cameras keep watch over motorists in school zones, many drivers choose B, making it impossible for authorities to track them down and issue fines. Gersh Kuntzman, editor of the transportation advocacy website Streetsblog NYC, has been reporting on defaced license plates and joins us from New York. Thank you for joining us.

GERSH KUNTZMAN: How are you doing, Ayesha?

RASCOE: I'm doing all right. So, Gersh, apparently, people in New York are trying to avoid speeding tickets and also tolls and red lights by doing something to their license plates, right?

KUNTZMAN: Well, you framed the problem right off the bat of the show. You said there's two ways to avoid a ticket. You can not go through a red light or not exceed the speed limit, or you can cover your plate illegally, which is a felony in New York state. So I would always - and I tell everybody, just don't speed. Unfortunately, we have tens of thousands of New Yorkers who want to speed. Many of them cover their plate. Either they use a plastic shield that has some sort of, like, pixelated finish on it, or they simply turn an E into an F or an eight into a zero by painting in a tiny bit of the plate with the same matching color. I mean, I've encountered so many of these around town, and I either repaint them, or I pull the sticker off, revealing the plate as it should be read.

RASCOE: So how did this get started? How did you get on this crusade?

KUNTZMAN: Well, the funny thing is I've been noticing covered plates for years. But only about a year ago, a friend of mine was arrested by the NYPD for fixing someone's plate. In other words, this guy had put a piece of plastic over his plate, and my friend was biking past, and he just moved the plastic back to where it belonged in the frame of the plate so that the plate could be read. Well, the guy called the cops on my friend, and the cops arrested my friend and charged him with criminal mischief. So I was just so excited by that. I thought that was so absurd that I wrote a folk song called "Criminal Mischief."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CRIMINAL MISCHIEF")

KUNTZMAN: (Singing) The cops call it criminal mischief. They simply do not want to hear. The cops call it criminal mischief. Their motives are so clear.

And then I decided, wait a minute. I got this awesome song. Let me go out and actually start doing my own version of criminal mischief and do music videos with the song. And I got to say, it really took off.

RASCOE: You talked about going on this crusade. What do you say to those people that feel like maybe you're just kind of going out here and being the teacher's pet and, you know, getting these license plates? These people are trying to stand up to the system.

KUNTZMAN: Well, they've called me a lot worse than teacher's pet. So I appreciate you keeping it clean for your audience.

RASCOE: (Laughter).

KUNTZMAN: Look, I don't do it because I want to help the law enforcement authorities charge people a $50 fine when they speed. I do it to make a broader point, which is there is an inability of the city's enforcement system, i.e., the automated enforcement system, to catch, you know, tens of thousands of people who are speeding through school zones. In one month last year, it was up to 7% of plates could not be read by the speed cameras. And those cameras are only reading plates that go past at more than 11 miles an hour above the speed limit. So if 7% of those people can't be ticketed, that's a lot of people who are putting people in danger.

RASCOE: I guess when you look at that, how much money are public agencies losing out as a result of this? Do you have any sense of that?

KUNTZMAN: Yeah, well, the Department of Transportation in the city of New York is losing tens of millions of dollars on this. The tolling agencies over the bridges - it's a little less clear. But in any event, everybody's losing tens of millions of dollars.

RASCOE: Well, you know, in D.C., they're like 100, $150. I know. And I feel like I drive very safely, to be clear.

KUNTZMAN: Why do you know, though? Why do you know how much the tickets are, Ayesha?

RASCOE: Because I have gotten them, but I feel like they are unjust. So I guess, also, what do you say to those people who say, I don't know that I was going fast - I think the camera might have been broken? And they have found cases of this.

KUNTZMAN: Yes, you can adjudicate these tickets in court, and people do it in New York. I - only about 8%, I think, are successful. And the other thing, obviously, is there's a big thing in the center of your car's dashboard that tells you how fast you're going.

RASCOE: (Laughter). But so when you are out here doing this and fixing the plates from being defaced, has anyone ever ran up on you? Like, do you - has it been dangerous?

KUNTZMAN: It's never happened. In fact, I had one woman come running out. She saw me painting over her license plate to be the correct numbers, and she said, hey, that's my car. That's my car. And I explained what I was doing, and she apologized to me. Now, I...

RASCOE: Oh.

KUNTZMAN: ...Obviously didn't expect that kind of reaction. I think she was surprised by what I was doing. But no, generally speaking, nobody confronts me because if they come to me and say, what are you doing to my car? - I say, well, what are you doing to my city?

RASCOE: That's Gersh Kuntzman, editor of Streetsblog NYC. Thank you so much for coming on.

KUNTZMAN: Listen. Call anytime.

RASCOE: And stay safe out there.

(LAUGHTER)

KUNTZMAN: Absolutely. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Matthew Schuerman
Matthew Schuerman has been a contract editor at NPR's Weekend Edition since October 2021, overseeing a wide range of interviews on politics, the economy, the war in Ukraine, books, music and movies. He also occasionally contributes his own stories to the network. Previously, he worked at New York Public Radio for 13 years as reporter, editor and senior editor, and before that at The New York Observer, Village Voice, Worth and Fortune. Born in Chicago and educated at Harvard College and Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, he now lives in the New York City area.
Michael Radcliffe

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