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.
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].