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What is Automated Speed Enforcement (and Will it Be Adopted in California)?

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Speed-Related Traffic Deaths at Historic Highs; California Pushes for Automated Enforcement

Speed-Related Traffic Deaths at Historic Highs; California Pushes for Automated Enforcement

Jul 16, 2021

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that for over two decades, speeding has been involved in approximately one-third of all motor vehicle fatalities. As we’ve noted in previous blogs, America’s roads and highways have become even more deadlier throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

In 2020, 42,000 people died in motor vehicle crashes (with 4.8 million injured). That represents an 8% increase from 2019, the largest year-over-year jump in nearly a century. And it came in spite of the number of miles driven having fallen a whopping 13%. As the pandemic continues to wane and more and more commuters return to work, those alarming figures could increase.

In a recent Los Angeles Times report, Leah Shahum, executive director of the non-profit Vision Zero Network that works to reduce traffic deaths, confirmed that while the COVID-19 pandemic caused the roads to empty out, many drivers were more prone to speed or drive recklessly, leading to an increase in fatalities. As Shahum noted, traffic congestion ironically kept people safer before the pandemic.

The recent surge in traffic fatalities has garnered the attention of lawmakers. As the Times reported, local Glendale Assemblywoman, Laura Friedman, introduced a bill this year to reduce speed limits.

This is a nationwide public health crisis,” Friedman told the Times. “If we had 42,000 people dying every year in plane crashes, we would do a lot more about it, and yet we seem to have accepted this as collateral damage.

Friedman’s Assembly Bill 43 (AB 43) aims to provide more flexibility on setting speed limits. In April, the bill achieved its first major victory, earning unanimous, bipartisan support in the Assembly Transportation Committee. Specifically, AB 43 incorporates the findings and recommendations relating to speed limits included in the California State Transportation Agency (CalSTA)’s Zero Traffics Fatalities Task Force Report. Said report specifically looks at reforming the way California allows speed limits to be set.

Following AB 43’s legislative victory, Friedman noted the importance of taking action in the face of the historic traffic fatality numbers seen throughout COVID-19.

“A year into the pandemic, we intimately understand what a public health crisis is, and how important it is to act fast,” she said in a public statement. “Over 42,000 Americans have lost their lives over the last year because of a traffic collision, 3,600 of which were in California. Over 1,000 of those deaths were California pedestrians and cyclists. That too is clearly a public health crisis and should be addressed with the same seriousness, speed and willingness to change.”

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California State Assemblyman David Chiu (D-San Francisco) also introduced traffic safety legislation in March, which included a call for what’s known as ‘automated speed enforcement.’ Under automated speed enforcement technology, if a driver is exceeding the speed limit in a monitored area, a sensor will detect their speed, record the vehicle’s license plate, and automatically issue a citation to the driver in the mail.
The technology is currently prohibited in California (Los Angeles previously used red light cameras on city streets, but that program was discontinued several years ago). However, 140 communities around the nation have used automated speed enforcement technology and reported positive results

Washington, D.C., saw a 70% reduction in speeding,” Seleta Reynolds, general manager of L.A.’s Department of Transportation, told the Los Angeles Times. “New York saw huge reductions in severe and fatal crashes. That technology is going to save people’s lives for years to come.”

Currently there are two speed-enforcement bills under consideration in the state Legislature that would legalize use of the technology in California.
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Assembly Bill 550 (AB 550) – introduced by Assemblyman Chiu – would authorize speed detection on streets identified as dangerous, as well as in work zones. The bill calls on the state transportation agency to work with local governments to administer the program.

California State Senator Susan Rubio (D-Baldwin Park) introduced State Bill 735 (SB 735), which would authorize local communities to set up automated speed enforcement in school zones. Rubio, who is a former teacher, told the Los Angeles Times her bill is something she felt was necessary for years, especially after a student was struck and killed outside a school where she worked in Baldwin Park.

As a vice principal for three years, my job … at times was to manage traffic,” Rubio told the Times. “People are trying to drop off their kids as cars are speeding through.”

While such legislation is viewed as having benefits that could ultimately improve public safety, as multiple media reports have confirmed, both bills have received considerable pushback from various entities, including police organizations and the ACLU. Pushback to this type of legislation typically stems from concerns over privacy and equity issues.

But the Los Angeles Times reported that SB 735 would impose fines only up to $150 and include a scale for lesser fines based on one’s ability to pay. AB 550 would also include that element, capping fines at $125.

In addition to the cap on fines, AB 550 seeks to address those aforementioned concerns in the following ways:

  • Speed citations would be civil, not criminal (and would not result in a point against a driver’s record)
  • Local governments would need to establish a hearing and appeal process so drivers can contest citations
  • The enforcing agencies would be required to create “diversion programs” for low-income drivers, which could mean education or community service in place of a fine
  • Facial recognition software would be banned from speed cameras, with photos encompassing “just the license plate”
  • Data from a camera system “cannot be used for any other purpose or shared with any other entity except in response to a court order or subpoena”

*Chiu’s office confirmed the last two points, according to LAist.com

The Times also reported that Los Angeles records an average of 250 motor vehicle fatalities every year, though in addition to speeding, many are caused by other factors, such as distracted driving, driving under the influence, drowsy driving, and more.

Despite the pushback from various organizations, legislators and public safety advocates are continuing to work to pass legislation that will curb speeding and reduce traffic fatalities.

Damian Kevitt, executive director of Streets Are for Everyone, worked with Rubio on SB 735. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, he cited the results of automated speed enforcement in other states as an indication that the technology could be used to great success in California.

“It reduced speeding and traffic collisions and fatalities,” Kevitt said. “Statistically speaking, kids and the elderly are the most vulnerable.”

What is Automated Speed Enforcement?

Automated speed enforcement is a technology utilizing cameras to measure the speeds of passing cars and capture photos of those traveling a certain number of miles per hour over the limit. For drivers who are speeding, a ticket is then issued by mail to the owner of the vehicle. Unlike flashing roadside signs that can be found on many roadways encouraging drivers to slow down, automated speed enforcement cameras typically don’t display a driver’s speed in real time.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that automated enforcement is used in various jurisdictions to reduce red-light running as well as speeding.

Speed cameras (also called photo radar or automated speed enforcement) operate similarly to automated speed enforcement by recording a vehicle’s speed using radar or other instrumentation and taking a photograph of the vehicle when it exceeds a threshold limit. The NHTSA and Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) have issued speed camera enforcement program and operational guides with information on problem identification and program planning, communications strategies, obtaining community and other stakeholder support, processing of violations, and program evaluation.

The History of Automated Speed Enforcement

The CDC also confirms that the first automated speed limit enforcement program was actually implemented in Paradise Valley, Arizona, in 1987. Since then, at least 92 jurisdictions (state and local) have adopted automatic enforcement (although speed cameras are not as widely used as red-light cameras).

Some jurisdictions, such as the State of Maryland and Cincinnati, Ohio, previously adopted speed cameras but have since repealed (or considered repealing or restricting) their speed-camera laws. Legal challenges as well as negative sentiment among constituents were cited as factors for the repealing/restricting.

How Effective is Automated Speed Enforcement?

The CDC confirms that speed cameras can reduce motor vehicle crashes “substantially.” 13 international safety impact studies of automated speed enforcement were reviewed, including one study from a United States jurisdiction. The best-controlled studies suggested injury crash reductions are likely to be “in the range of 20 to 25% at conspicuous, fixed camera sites.”

Additionally, covert, mobile enforcement programs resulted in significant crash reductions area-wide. Prior reviewers also concluded that, although the quality of evidence was not high, speed cameras and speed detection technologies are effective at reducing traffic crashes and injuries. Recent crash-based studies from the United States have reported positive safety benefits through crash and speed reductions from mobile camera enforcement on 14 urban arterials in Charlotte, North Carolina, and from fixed camera enforcement on an urban freeway in Arizona.

This particular Arizona freeway study examined effects of a fixed camera enforcement program applied to a 6.5-mile urban freeway section through Scottsdale. The speed limit on the enforced freeway is 65 mph, and the enforcement trigger was set to 76 mph. The following results were reported during the nine-month study period:

  • Total target crashes [crashes during nonpeak periods that are materially affected by camera enforcement] were reduced by an estimated 44% to 54%
  • Injury crashes were reduced by 28% to 48%
  • Property damage-only crashes were reduced by 46% to 56%

In addition to the crash reductions, average speed was decreased by about 9 mph, and speed variance [a measure related to the range of speeds and the amount of variability around the average speed] was also decreased around the enforced zones.

Following the Arizona freeway study, an economic analysis suggested that the total estimated safety benefits (including medical, quality of life, and other costs such as emergency responders, insurance, wage loss, household work loss, legal fees, and property damage) were from $16.5 to $17.1 million per year.

Another positive finding from this study was that all types of motor vehicle crashes appeared to be reduced, with the possible exception of rear-end crashes (for which effects were non-significant). Given the findings, the CDC confirmed there were “no obvious trade-offs of decreases in some crash types at the expense of increases in others.”

According to the CDC, pilot project evaluations of speed camera use in the United States have also obtained promising speed reductions from fixed speed cameras on low-speed school zones in Portland, Oregon and low-speed limit residential streets and school zones in Montgomery County, Maryland.

Nine additional high-quality studies were conducted in 2010 and maintained the qualitative results. The studies reported the following:

  • Reductions in average speed of between 1% and 15%
  • Reductions in the proportion of speeding vehicles of between 14% and 65% (relative to similar study controls)
  • Reductions in total crashes of 8% to 49%
  • Reductions of fatal and serious-injury crashes of 11% to 44% (in studies that compared pre- and post-crash data collected near camera sites)

Finding the Best Car Accident Lawyer if You’re Injured in a Speeding/Pedestrian Accident

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