‘The Wire’ writer David Simon ignites a debate over NYC traffic cameras in school zones
This week, David Simon, the Baltimore writer behind HBO’s The Wire, said the City of New York mailed him a speeding ticket for going 36 mph in a “school zone.”
Simon explains that he was en route to a SAG-AFTRA strike, it was mid-July, and one of the city’s school-zone speeding cameras caught him driving too fast. It was a six-lane “commercial boulevard,” and the time was 5:40 in the morning, leading Simon to wonder aloud if maybe his HBO show about holding the government accountable was set in the wrong city.
He seems annoyed to have stumbled upon a feature of NYC driving that, for many locals too, ranks alongside alternate-side parking.
New York first rolled out its school-zone-speeding camera program back in 2014, after Governor Andrew Cuomo signed it into law. It authorized a five-year pilot giving the city permission to operate 20 cameras within a quarter-mile of schools on weekdays from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.—when kids were around, basically. Drivers caught exceeding the posted limit by more than 10 mph (36 mph or more in a 25-mph zone) could receive a $50 ticket by mail.
That pilot ended in 2019, and the city started adding cameras. By last year, the number around town had climbed north of 2,000. Last year is also when Governor Kathy Hochul signed another new law giving New York permission to keep them running 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year—ostensibly to protect children on the city’s streets at a time of climbing traffic fatalities.
But critics complained that it smelled like an automated speeding trap. Hochul’s statement explained that keeping New Yorkers safe “starts with ensuring our kids can make their way to and from school without being harmed”—which seemed to imply that she had specific hours in mind—before adding “reckless driving is not limited to weekday daylight hours,” and “New Yorkers don’t just deserve safe streets at certain hours of the day.”
Simon’s fury seems based on an error about the details. (New York actually set a citywide speed limit of 25 mph the same year that the school-zone pilot started, in 2014.) But semantically, people who have never loved the concept of speeding cameras may see his point, considering that, with that quarter-mile range that New York’s 24/7 speeding cameras are legally allowed to operate in, much of Manhattan—which measures 23 square miles and has 320 schools—has morphed into a de facto “school zone.”
Simon acknowledges that his attempts to expose the Big Apple’s school-zone-speeding-cam racket could be because he’s been on strike too long and has gotten extra feisty. Still, he’s posted nearly 100 tweets since (August 23, 2023) morning. They’ve sparked a fiery debate about when a school-zone ticket qualifies as just desserts, and when it represents, to quote Simon again, a “city on the fucking make.”
The New York City Department of Transportation even rationed him, somehow:
The city argues that its cameras are working: Where there are speeding cams installed, data shows injuries have decreased by 14%, and speeding by 70%. Simon says that’s great, but he just isn’t sure what that has to do with schools. The fracas did at least give him his chance to hold Gotham City accountable, or at least to have his say: