Philbrick: Automated traffic cameras could save lives
Traffic heads west on El Camino Real in front of the Tuscany Apartments in Santa Clara on Friday, Sept. 16, 2022. Photo by Joseph Geha.

    Last September, 8-year-old Jacob Villanueva was struck and killed while walking to school. At the site of the crash at Castlemont Avenue and Driftwood Drive in San Jose, his family, neighbors and classmates created a memorial. One sign read, “Please drive slow.” The pain and anguish his family and friends feel will last a lifetime, even if it diminishes over time.

    This tragedy could have been avoided.

    Too many individuals die on California streets every year—including in San Jose, where 33% of deaths have been linked to speeding. In fact, in 2021, speeding killed 12,330 people in the United States. How do we get speeding cars to slow down?

    In some places, automated camera enforcement effectively discourages speeding and makes a significant impact on reducing fatal crashes. Although opponents cite privacy concerns, automated traffic enforcement cameras can motivate drivers to slow down and save lives.

    Unsafe speed continues to be the No. 1 cause of severe and fatal traffic crashes statewide. Just in San Jose alone this year, 18 people have lost their lives in crashes—many of them pedestrians. The most recent fatality in San Jose occurred this past Sunday when a motorcyclist driving at a high rate of speed collided with a parked vehicle.

    The likelihood of severe injury and fatality increases exponentially with speed. For example, a pedestrian struck by a vehicle going 35 mph is five times more likely to die than a vulnerable road user hit by a vehicle going 20 mph. Hit at 50 mph, on average, 75% of people will die—although that varies by age, with children and seniors more vulnerable than other groups. The average risk of death for a pedestrian becomes 90% at 58 mph.

    Any loss of life is too much, and speed safety cameras have been repeatedly proposed as a method toward zero deaths on our roadways.

    And for good reason. Such cameras in use in Europe are already showing significant impact on reducing crashes—about 20% on average in the European Union. Other U.S. cities—including Portland, Seattle, New York City and Washington D.C.—have followed this example. Implementing speed detection systems have been shown to significantly alter driver behavior and, according to the National Transportation Safety Board, can reduce the number of severe and fatal crashes by as much as 51%.

    Still, opponents of this technology have raised concerns over accuracy, privacy and even equity. While automated speed cameras have been proposed as a way to advance equity by removing human prejudice in traffic enforcement, some extant camera programs have shown mixed results. For example, an investigation into automated enforcement in Chicago found tickets were disproportionately sent to majority-Black ZIP codes. This argument has led some advocates, including California Walks, to oppose previous automated speed camera bills. However, others posit that cameras are a strong alternative to “potentially biased police traffic stops.”

    Another oft-cited objection is privacy concerns. However, any data collected from cameras—except that pertaining to speed, potential traffic violations like running a red light and other pertinent information—remains confidential and inaccessible.

    For example, a Washington state law regarding similar technology includes that, “No photograph, microphotograph, or electronic image, or any other personally identifying data may be used for any purpose other than enforcement of violations under this section nor retained longer than necessary to enforce this section.” The data is for the “exclusive use of law enforcement in the discharge of duties under this section and are not open to the public.” Ensuring that any data collected by automated traffic enforcement cameras remains confidential and is delicately handled is an important part of any such technology use.

    To address further concerns over equity and privacy, automated camera deployment should include requirements that the public be notified of where the cameras are installed. Systems could also issue warnings in the mail instead of citations and fines for a limited time as an adjustment period. Additionally, cities where cameras are deployed can regularly evaluate results of their use, including safety and economic impacts, and consider continuation or changes periodically to ensure they are being used effectively and equitably.

    The first traffic safety camera systems—those for red light violations—have been in use in the U.S. since 1993, and as of 2018, speed cameras were being used in 137 jurisdictions in 14 states and the District of Columbia. It’s critical to appropriately deploy technology in our communities—using it only with careful consideration, planning and feedback.

    Technology-driven approaches are but one tool in our safety toolkit. When it comes to saving lives, we should welcome innovative ideas with open arms so that every person traveling—whether by car, bike or on foot–can reach their final destination safely.

    Finding the right way to use technology, including automated camera enforcement systems, could be one step on the path to saving lives.

    San José Spotlight columnist Karen E. Philbrick is the executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute, a research institute focusing on multimodal surface transportation policy and management issues. Her columns appear every first Wednesday of every other month.

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