San Jose could hand out more speeding tickets next year, thanks to a controversial bill bringing traffic cameras to several California cities.
Assembly Bill 645 legalizes the state’s use of surveillance cameras in school zones and “safety corridors” to catch speeding drivers for a five-year pilot program. Six cities will participate in the pilot, including San Jose, San Francisco and Oakland. Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the bill last week.
San Jose is eligible for 33 cameras, though budget restraints may force the city to cut back on the number of cameras installed. Mayor Matt Mahan said the program won’t be an easy or cheap undertaking considering the cost of leasing the cameras, the data systems that operate on the backend, training workers and creating procedures. But he believes it will be worth it, and said he hopes to allocate the dollars next July. The city is unable to provide a cost estimate until it receives bids on the project.
“This is a targeted enforcement tool that gives our police department greater leverage and allows us to better intervene in high risk corridors where people are at particular risk,” Mahan told San José Spotlight. “We hope for us to see 50%-70% reductions in crashes and fatalities on these very dangerous (streets).”
Mahan said he will prioritize putting cameras near schools, day cares or other corridors where children frequent—as well as the city’s most dangerous streets where collisions and deaths are more likely to occur.
San Jose’s streets have become increasingly dangerous. During the last decade, traffic deaths more than doubled from 29 in 2010 to 60 in 2021. Last year was a record high, with 65 people dying on San Jose’s streets. The majority of the deaths happened on what San Jose calls its 17 most dangerous streets—found predominately on the East Side.
Colin Heyne, spokesperson for the city’s transportation department, said speeding is a primary cause for collisions, injuries and deaths. He points to New York City as a successful implementation of speed cameras, where the technology led to a 30% reduction in speeding in one year. In some New York streets, speeds reduced by 96%.
In San Jose, traffic fatalities appear to be trending downward, though Heyne warns this may be an anomaly. There have been 41 traffic fatalities in San Jose as of Oct. 12. Fifty-five people had died by this time last year, Heyne said.
Statewide, the trend is going up. Traffic fatalities increased approximately 7.6% from 3,980 in 2020 to 4,285 in 2021, according to the California Department of Motor Vehicles. It’s taken years for speed cameras to be legalized in the state, primarily because of privacy concerns from groups like the ACLU, NAACP and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Human Rights Watch opposed AB 645 and wrote to state senators in August that the bill would create “a surveillance infrastructure that will generate fines on a massive scale and almost certainly disproportionately impact” people who “are already over-surveilled, over-policed, and historically disinvested from.”
Shiloh Ballard, former executive director of the Silicon Valley Bike Coalition, said the city has to be intentional about where it puts cameras so East San Jose and other disenfranchised areas are not oversaturated with enforcement. Ballard said the bill has requirements in place to reduce over-policing, including issuing warnings instead of fines for the first violation and placing signage around the cameras. She also wants San Jose to form an advisory group with surveillance, policing and road safety advocates to help implement the technology.
“The intent isn’t to make a bunch of money and punish people (or) a ‘gotcha speeding’ kind of thing,” Ballard told San José Spotlight. “We actually want to change behavior, so what are the ways that we can actually do that now that we have this additional tool?”
Heyne said the law has equity and privacy measures in place so low-income residents are not disproportionately impacted by the speed cameras. For example, the cameras only take still photos of license plates and cannot use facial recognition technology. The photos are not allowed to be shared with any other agency, unless required by law or subpoena. The tickets are not sent to the DMV, so a speeding violation caught by camera will not count as points against a person’s driving record.
Drivers caught going at least 11 miles per hour above the posted limit will be fined $50, according to the bill, and the amount will increase for drivers at higher speeds. Drivers can get an 80% discount or do community service if they show they’re under the federal poverty line.
The money collected from fines will be used for calming traffic measures such as street lights, protected bike lanes and other safety infrastructure.
“(Using the fines this way) is a compromise so that cities don’t take ‘the easy way out,’” Heyne said. “It’s a safety check in the bill so that we don’t just slap up speed cameras rather than put in the effort to transform the streets themselves.”
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