Op-Ed: Automated Traffic Enforcement Can Ease Some of Bay Area’s Policing Problems

Another routine summer day on San Francisco Bay Area roads. Triple-digit freeway speeds. Cars stopping briefly at red lights and then proceeding. It’s the new Covid-19 traffic norm. There’s little law enforcement.

Looming government budget deficits and the George Floyd killing are pressuring politicians to reshape police budgets. But many people want cops to respond rapidly to violent crimes and don’t welcome traffic mayhem.

At the same time, Driving While Black traffic stops remain a national scourge.

This can’t continue.

But I believe we can ease these problems by automating traffic enforcement. Traffic cameras work. I saw the result last September on a visit to Brasília, the capital of Brazil.

Despite Brasília’s LA-style broad boulevards, traffic was docile. I’d never been anywhere where drivers almost universally obeyed speed-limit, traffic-signal, and tailgating rules.

The reason: Brasília teems with traffic cameras. In 2012, 658 devices were operating, and the current figure may be 739. They are everywhere and inescapable.

In the United States, much routine traffic enforcement wastes time and money. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration concluded, “The resources expended and the specific activities used by law enforcement ... to enforce traffic safety laws are generally unknown, at least in the aggregate.”

It cannot, however, be efficient for a highly paid, armed human to spend a half hour citing a minor traffic offender.

And so, even before Covid-19, traffic control was spotty. Agencies “have insufficient personnel to mount effective enforcement programs using traditional police patrols,” the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) says: “Between 1995 and 2013, the estimated number of vehicle miles traveled in the United States increased by 23 percent, but the number of law enforcement officers grew by only 1.2 percent.”

Traffic enforcement has dwindled further during the Covid-19 pandemic. “In March of 2019,” per the same IIHS study, a CHP detachment “wrote 742 speeding tickets. So far in March of 2020, records show officers wrote only 205 speeding tickets.”

In Illinois, the study added, “state police officers are writing far fewer speeding tickets, with the numbers plummeting from 6,846 in April 2019 to 530 in April of this year.”

Speeders and red-light runners have been as quick as the law-abiding to perceive slackening enforcement. Enough remained, however, for the National Conference of State Legislatures to report that: “Citations for speeding over 100 mph saw an 87 percent spike in California between March 19 and April 19. Citations in Iowa and Nebraska increased by over 60 percent for the same reckless behavior. The average speed on some of Oregon’s highways was up to 26 mph higher than usual.”

Berkeley is planning traffic enforcement with “unarmed civil servants.” But that is risky. As New York Times columnist Ross Douthat recently observed, “We’re a heavily armed country in which traffic stops ... are more likely to end in gunfire than elsewhere.”

Automated enforcement has already been accepted in some places.

The IIHS found that 62 percent of drivers in Montgomery County, Maryland, favored their installed speed-camera systems. As did 77 percent of drivers in Scottsdale, Arizona, and 71 percent of drivers in Washington, D.C.

Still, the main roadblock to greater use is cameras’ implacability.

Although legal privacy rights are minimal in public places, practical politics leave automated systems underused.

The IIHS reports that only 340 communities nationwide use red-light cameras. A mere 153 operate speed-detection systems. Eight states ban red-light cameras and another eight ban automated speed enforcement. Of these, six—Maine, Mississippi, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Texas and West Virginia—ban both traffic control methods.

But the other side of the implacability argument is that cameras don’t discriminate and will meet demands for racial fairness. A driver’s race or ethnicity will no longer be a factor. Automated enforcement should buy a degree of racial peace.

There will be no peace of any kind, of course, if cameras’ settings are too strict.

Human discretion must be replaced by automated lenity, lest fury erupt at stiff fines for driving five mph over the speed limit. Lawmakers should follow Governors Highway Safety Association guidelines and make camera-based penalties “more lenient than those used with traditional enforcement. For example, the fine may be lower, points may not be assessed or the citation may not go on the driver’s record.”

Lower fines to $100 or less and make infractions a civil violation against the car’s registered owner. Set cameras to give speeders a few miles per hour of leeway. Then let our cities and counties experiment.

Traffic problems don’t admit of panaceas. Cameras mean a heightened state surveillance apparatus. Lack of human enforcement means bad driving, but what remains is unfair to Blacks and Latinos. However, life is about trade-offs.

It’s time to give cameras a chance in an inevitably imperfect regulatory scheme, ending the Driving While Black phenomenon and reducing traffic chaos in exchange for no longer lucking out when a police officer turns a blind eye to that red light you just ran.

Ted Stroll is a San Jose resident, retired lawyer and dedicated mountain biker and road cyclist who happens to have a car, too. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of San Jose Inside. Send op-ed pitches to [email protected].

20 Comments

  1. It’s not too soon to get an initiative going to outlaw the use of traffic cameras.

  2. Red light cameras and photo-radar speed enforcement have been tried in a number of Santa Clara County communities since at least the 1990s. They all failed for a variety of reasons. Since Mr. Stroll lauds himself as a retired lawyer, I am wondering why he failed to mention any of those failed attempts at automated traffic enforcement in his op ed since a number of them hinged on constitutional issues.

    Ask any cop and they will tell you a lot of crimes are thwarted during traffic enforcement efforts. Arrests for just-occurred residential burglaries, illegal drugs and illegal weapons are often the fruition of an officer monitoring a stop sign controlled intersection or conducting speed enforcement. (Cops will also tell you that at the distance required to effectively capture a driver’s speed on radar or lidar, there is no way they can see the ethnicity of the driver.). If there aren’t enough cops to do traffic enforcement, then we need more cops.

    What about speeding on residential streets? Again, ask any cop and they will tell you that traffic enforcement in residential pockets is one of the most frequent requests by residents who see their neighborhoods over run by cut through traffic, etc. In my opinion, once you de-emphasize a task law enforcement fulfills , such as traffic enforcement, law enforcement officers will just cease doing it altogether. In the end, our neighborhoods will suffer.

    Aside from the nightmare of trying to unravel DMV registration errors because you are planning to cite the registered owner of the car, and we all know the DMV is perfect, in reality many innocent people will be penalized by the system you propose. I won’t even delve into the privacy issues.

    Any cop will tell you they give more warnings than citations. Electronic traffic enforcement is unforgiving. Do we really want a heartless system that doesn’t give a break?

    But, Mr. Stroll, since you make a number of assumptions regarding a peace officer’s ability to enforce the law fairly, I will make one myself. I wonder, Mr. Stroll, if you are one of those cyclists that never stop at stop signs and basically treat the roadway as your personal bike way? After all, what mechanism, under your fantasy land proposal, would hold cyclists accountable to the rules of the road?

  3. Just outlaw bicycles on roadways all together. If it saved just ONE life it would be worth it.

  4. If bicycles were outlawed on roadways, the resulting traffic jams would be stupendous. We drivers all benefit from cyclists. The more bike-riders the better if you want to get to your destination faster.

  5. I think cameras would be a great idea. Jokes about cyclists aside: there are no bicyclists on freeways, and yet, pre-Covid, traffic jams in the Bay area were a nightmare during rush hour. And when it wasn’t rushhour? Roll overs and rear enders and trucks on their side made up the brunt of all the other traffic woes. I am going to make a guess that most of the complaints about cameras are either from those who feel they are being watched, only your license plate is, and those who speed.

  6. Tried & failed long ago.

    Cameras don’t mean a thing to those who speed, run red lights, etc.

    I think the best idea is for all of us to move to Brasília, the capital of Brazil.

  7. Lots of facts and assumptions constructed upon a number of misconceptions.

    — It is incorrect to assume a one-to-one correlation between violators stopped by police and the reduction of driving violations. One driver ticketed on the freeway, assuming the process takes fifteen minutes, will be noticed by hundreds or thousands of passing motorists, affecting how the vast majority of them will drive that day, and how they drive that stretch of freeway in the weeks and months that follow.

    — One marked patrol car, monitoring a problematic intersection or operating radar on a straightaway, will positively affect the driving of everyone who sees it (reducing accidents).

    — Routine stops for red light or speed violations, besides unmasking serious criminals in transit, often result in removing impaired drivers from the roadway (where they might otherwise kill or maim others, including wok bicyclists).

    — Accurately identifying violators using cameras requires plates be attached in compliance with the law (readable, unaltered, and attached to the correct vehicle), laws enforceable only by officers. The author’s plan could be a boon for electrical tape manufacturers.

    — Driving While Black is strictly political propaganda and, as such, impossible to eradicate as are sightings of ghosts, the achievement gap, and accountable liberals.

    — It is foolish to assume what works in one culture (Brazil) will work everywhere. Anyone who doubts that culture (genetics by another name) affects such things should take a trip to Germany (where driving speed directly correlates to arrogance).

    — The average age of those camera-loving drivers in Scottsdale may be 77 (with an average driving speed of 14 mph).

    — No clear thinking person believes colorblind enforcement will result in proportional enforcement (that would required proportional lawbreaking, something we will never, ever see here in America).

    — Low fines won’t pay for the program, let alone fill public coffers (this revenue shortage might lead to registration and insurance requirements for bicyclists).

  8. > If bicycles were outlawed on roadways, the resulting traffic jams would be stupendous. We drivers all benefit from cyclists. The more bike-riders the better if you want to get to your destination faster.

    Precisely the opposite.

    You had to try extra hard to be this wrong.

    Bicyclists DEMAND bike lanes which takes away traffic lanes available to motor vehicles.

    The bike lanes probably carry one percent of the traffic that would be carried if they were reverted to being motor vehicle lanes.

  9. I don’t speed and try my hardest to be courteous when on the road. Still, I can’t get behind the idea of ubiquitous traffic cameras b/c of the privacy concerns and the probable corruption between the companies administering the systems and city officials requesting the cameras. Furthermore, I also believe that the cameras make a driver more tunnel visioned and paranoid which isn’t necessairly safer driving–if I’m staring at my speedometer will I be likely to see someone entering a crosswalk for instance?

  10. Outlaw bicycles on the roadways and it will save the environment and it will save lives!
    (not to mention a lot of time and money…)

  11. “If bicycles were outlawed on roadways, the resulting traffic jams would be stupendous. ” Nope.

    Please provide supporting details. I can’t think of 1 in the southbay where lanes (e.g, the Hedding Heartbreak) were lanes were eliminated for cyclists that didn’t make matters far worse. Peak travel periods increased as have auto emissions.

    Even pre-COVID, the few cyclists I see are primarily homeless that ignore all traffic rules.

  12. What planet is this photo promoter on. It is very well known that scameras are not about safety but money. Ironically going after those who can least afford to fight back against a rigged process that assumes guilt always! Cameras are not safety, not about protecting anyone!

  13. Lots of gloom and doom in the comments here. Let’s give something like this a try and see if it works or doesn’t work. I’m tired of people racing up and down two one-way residential streets near me at double the speed limit, day and night. (Speed limit 30, they go 60.)

    While we’re at it, let’s install automated sound-detecting equipment and cite all of the motorcycles and cars that are so loud that they set off burglar alarms and wake everyone up. Their noise has to be illegal, but I bet the cops love the same noise coming from their own civilian cars and won’t cite anyone.

    Ah, peace, quiet, and tranquility.

  14. Outlaw Bikes on the Roads!

    Absolutely!

    Go mountain biking instead, much safer and less stressful.

    All I see are angry road cyclists, who make Karens look charming.

  15. You are all missing the point. If you want to condemn cyclists, by all means write your own editorial. Please focus on the dangerous roads we have before us. 2019 was the first year that more people died on the road than the year prior. This was not due to cyclists. So please take your forum elsewhere.

  16. two tires, no peace!
    two tires, no peace!
    two tires, no peace!

    what do we need, burn the bikes
    when do we need it, now

    rich old white men disproportionately use bike, ergo
    bike lanes are racist

    everyone knows that

  17. > two tires, no peace!
    two tires, no peace!
    two tires, no peace!

    what do we need, burn the bikes
    when do we need it, now

    rich old white men disproportionately use bike, ergo
    bike lanes are racist

    everyone knows that

    – – – – – – – – –

    You’re really getting into the spirit of the twenty-first century, Mr. Kulak.

    See! Change wasn’t so bad.

  18. syllogisms of struggle my friend,

    not only can’t you unsee them, once you do you see them, they are everywhere