San Jose is bracing for a record breaking year in traffic-related deaths, and the city and local officials are looking for ways to reverse course.
Despite years of work and millions of dollars in safety infrastructure, San Jose streets remain dangerous. Last year was a record-high for traffic-related deaths with 60 fatalities, and this year is on track to beat it with 47 deaths to date—25 of them pedestrians.
Rosemary Kamei, incoming councilmember for District 1, said the city is on the right track with redesigning streets to narrow lanes, building out bollards and adding bike lane protectors. But what is missing in San Jose’s approach is enforcement and an increase in traffic patrol officers, she said.
“We have really taken a backseat to enforcement and that’s not okay,” Kamei told San José Spotlight. “Having a little bit more rigidity on setting the standards and knowing that there are going to be consequences (will make streets safer).”
Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez, running for San Jose mayor this November, said having more officers patrolling the streets could make people slow down and adhere to traffic rules. Speeding is the leading cause of traffic injuries and deaths—accounting for 30% of the fatalities, according to city data.
“After the pandemic, we’ve seen people driving in erratic ways including speeding and more people are under the influence of alcohol or drugs that are driving,” Chavez said at a Wednesday news conference alongside Kamei. “We need to expand the number of positions that the city has for the entire department every year.”
Police staffing, like other city departments, has continued to decrease in San Jose—partly because of budget constraints and pension reform from a decade ago, according to San Jose Police Department spokesperson Christian Camarillo. In 2010, San Jose had 48 traffic officers. Now it has 30 positions and 18 are vacant, Camarillo said.
San Jose has invested millions to hire more cops. In June, the council unanimously approved $3.7 million for 16 foot patrol police officers and four mental health officers. In March, Mayor Sam Liccardo announced a $6 million multi-prong plan to increase street safety projects which includes funding for more traffic officers.
City data shows the decline in traffic enforcement officers pairs with an increase in severe and fatal injuries. But that doesn’t necessarily mean having more officers patrolling streets is the main solution, said Colin Heynes, spokesperson for the city’s transportation department.
“Enforcement might reduce speeding is a factual statement you can make from looking at the data and the evidence,” Heyne told San José Spotlight. “But does that need to be more police on motorcycles? Could it be technology? Could it be roadway design or education? Those are all debatable solutions for how do we reduce this illegal behavior (speeding).”
He said traffic safety advocates have voiced concern for years about having more traffic cops roaming city streets because of the disproportionate enforcement and impact on communities of color. Most of the city’s most dangerous corridors, as well as traffic-related injuries and deaths, occur in East San Jose—meaning people of color are disproportionately impacted.
Heyne points to addressing over-policing concerns through the use of cameras as another way to reduce speeding and traffic fatalities.
“The hope with these laws around the speed safety camera pilots (is to level) the playing field as far as equity, making sure that the cameras are placed equitably around the community, making sure that they’re not overly punitive, that ticket amounts are low,” Heyne said.
The city has also deployed other methods to reduce speeding. On Senter Road, the city spent just under $1 million to paint the intersections and put green bollards and plastic barriers in place to force drivers to slow down. These efforts saw traffic death and serious injuries along Senter Road drop from 15 in 2020 to five in 2021, according to city data. This summer, San Jose also received $10 million from the state to build out more permanent safety infrastructure.
In District 6, reducing the amount of lanes has also proven successful because it forces drivers to slow down. Fruitdale Avenue, which saw several serious injuries and at least one death between 2016 and 2019, has had no reported serious incidents in the last two years.
Contact Jana Kadah at [email protected] or @Jana_Kadah on Twitter.