Do We Need Police To Curb LA's Traffic Violence? Some Cities Are Saving Lives Without Them

Published Sep 29, 2020

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The movement to shift money from armed policing to care-based programs has gained significant momentum in recent months, including here in Los Angeles. Underscoring those efforts are big challenges to long-held assumptions about the jobs law enforcement should be doing.

One key question: Why do armed police officers enforce traffic laws?

Being pulled over while driving is the most common way members of the public interact with police. And the traffic stop is fraught. Both law enforcement and communities of color point to traffic stops gone wrong.

For police, that risk comes from uncertainty about who is in the vehicle and what their intentions are. For people of color, the danger comes from knowing that the person walking up to their window is armed and trained to kill when feeling threatened.

Critics say minor traffic infractions are often a pretext used by police to disproportionately stop, question and search Black and Brown people -- and an abundance of research and reporting supports that.

At the same time, our roads remain deadly and many fatalities are tied to behavior officers are trained to handle, like speeding and reckless driving. In L.A. alone, almost 250 people are killed each year on city streets -- about the same number of people killed in homicides in 2019.

The majority of those killed in collisions are pedestrians and cyclists.

Even before the protests this year intensified criticism of American policing, some safety advocates and traffic experts had been calling for a new approach. Instead of traffic stops by armed officers, they advocate for renewed investments in street improvements, education and alternative methods to hold drivers accountable.

There is mounting evidence that those strategies can make notable progress in reducing death and injury on the road -- progress that has eluded L.A. in recent years.

WHERE WE ARE TODAY

A pedestrian walks across Olympic Boulevard in Koreatown. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

In 2015, the city of Los Angeles launched Vision Zero, an ambitious program with a goal of eliminating traffic fatalities by 2025 -- relying in part on increased police enforcement. Despite that, the number of pedestrians and cyclists killed by drivers has soared.

Safety experts, community advocates and city leaders have told me L.A.'s efforts so far are weak, sluggish and not working.

There's a lot to unpack, but here are the key issues to consider:

Are the police effective?

A growing number of city officials and transportation experts view the impact of armed police enforcement of traffic laws as "mixed at best." And given the history of racism in policing, particularly as it relates to traffic stops, many communities simply don't equate police with safer streets and neighborhoods.

Are the streets safer?

No. Los Angeles streets have gotten more dangerous and deadly in recent years, especially for pedestrians. And data show that Angelenos in the city's underserved communities, which include more people of color, are disproportionately killed in traffic crashes.

Do alternative methods work?

There is increasing evidence that they do. By rethinking traffic safety, some U.S. cities have made notable progress in saving lives on their streets. Much of this has been achieved through lowering speed limits, meaningful investments in "self-enforcing" street design and automated enforcement -- efforts that don't require police officers.

That said, some of those measures are harder to enact in L.A. (more on that in a bit.)

What's the current thinking in L.A.?

This summer, a group of L.A. City Council members filed a motion calling on the city's Department of Transportation and legislative officials to work with community members and report back on alternative methods of traffic enforcement, collision investigations and other traffic safety duties currently handled by the Los Angeles Police Department.

Some potential changes that will be explored: replacing LAPD officers with a "transit ambassador program" staffed by unarmed LADOT personnel and/or automated technology to monitor and cite drivers for speeding, illegal turns and other moving violations.

"Such a move would virtually eliminate the LAPD's role in traffic stops, one of the leading forms of interaction between police and the public," states the motion, which was filed by L.A. City Councilmembers Marqueece Harris-Dawson, Mike Bonin, Curren Price and Herb Wesson.

A 'RECKONING' ON POLICE ROLES

(Chava Sanchez/LAist)

Councilman Harris-Dawson told me recently he believes that the "moral moment" happening over policing isn't just on law enforcement agencies. He says police have long faced a "raw deal" in the communities they take an oath to serve, handling a range of issues without enough training.

"Basically everything that society didn't want to deal with or didn't want to invest in -- every problem that was created as a result of social policy -- ends up with police officers," Harris-Dawson said.

And he sees this as leading directly to the "reckoning" happening now.

"You have armed officers directing traffic, you have them taking reports after accidents, you have them settling arguments between kids after school," he said. "Invariably, when you're not trained to do something, things go wrong and then [police] bear the brunt of it as if it's all their fault. In fact, many of these circumstances they ended up in because we sent them there."

In the communities Harris-Dawson serves -- the South L.A. neighborhoods in Council District 8 -- he said residents don't view interactions with police as safe.

"The horror and trauma that people go through over 'routine' -- and I say that in air quotes -- traffic stops, is just unspeakable, especially for people in my district," he said.

Harris-Dawson told me some of L.A.'s communities of color have been hesitant to embrace Vision Zero; they don't see its increase in police enforcement as a benign attempt to reduce traffic deaths, but as "a ruse to put more police on the street."

"People do not associate more infractions, more traffic enforcement with increased safety, and for good reason -- because all too often that's not the point, or at least it's mixed at best," he said.

(Courtesy Chris Yarzab via Flickr)

Brian Bowens lives in Leimert Park and, like many Black Angelenos, he is painfully familiar with racial profiling by police in traffic stops. It's something he's dealt with since his youth. He estimates he's been stopped by police while driving or riding in a car about 175 times in his life, and was cited for traffic violations about 10% of the time.

He believes many police officers cannot recognize how "systemic compartmentalization" is affecting them and their perception of what traffic safety means.

"[Police] are taught to be violent, but that violence is not manifested from true malevolence," Bowens said. "It's manifested from them really thinking: 'Oh, we're improving traffic. We're doing a good job. Of course I gotta get Black drivers off the street ... of course, I gotta be harder and harsher.'"

In the aftermath of the 1992 unrest in L.A. sparked by the Rodney King verdict, Bowens, then a college student, was featured in a 20/20 segment about driving while Black. Decades later, he says, nothing has changed. It's one reason he decided to forgo a car, and instead take public transit.

"I don't like driving in L.A. for the fact that I know I have a higher incidence of being involved with the police," Bowens told me. For him, the long history of systemic racism is ample reason to limit police roles in public safety.

Bowens recalled one encounter when he was a college student in the early '90s. He was home in L.A. for a visit and spending the evening with a childhood friend. He was behind the wheel when a police officer stopped them at a sobriety checkpoint.

"First thing he does is shine the light in my face, looks at her, says, 'Ma'am, is there anything wrong? Is there anything going on?'" Bowens said. "The whole thing just becomes very real very quick."

His friend, who is biracial, started to panic. Bowens told her to calm down and not say anything. He said the officer then quickly ordered him out of the car, checked his ID and gave him a breathalyzer test. Bowens said he was allowed back to his car 15 minutes later, where his friend sat, visibly shaken by the experience.

"She's bawling, she's absolutely just irate," Bowens said. "[I said] 'you can't give them any more excuses to come back to this car. I'm not even gonna pull off until you get your shit together.'"

Their friendship ended because of that night. "She literally could not deal with it," he said.

Bowens said he believes the "humiliation" police officers put him through was intentional "because I was in a car with someone that they perceived as a white girl."

RACISM AND TRAFFIC STOPS

Bowens' experiences mirror that of many Black drivers, going back to the early days of the automobile.

In the name of curbing unsafe driving, people of color have faced discrimination from authorities and had their movement in states and cities "cast as a criminal act ... just by the virtue of their race," said Genevieve Carpio, assistant professor in the César E. Chávez Department of Chicana/o Studies at UCLA and author of Collisions at the Crossroads: How Place and Mobility Make Race.

Members of the Los Angeles Police Department's motorcycle traffic patrol, photographed June 1941. (Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection)

One example: the Mann Act, passed by Congress in 1910. The law was designed to stop human trafficking across state lines, but was used to criminalize interracial relationships, targeting Black men driving with white women.

"It not only led to more encounters with police, which could be deadly," Carpio explained, "but it also disciplined and attempted to control interracial relationships between Black men and white women."

The law was perhaps most famously used against boxer Jack Johnson, the first Black man to become world heavyweight champion. In 1912, Johnson was arrested, charged and convicted for driving a white woman, who later became his wife, across state lines for "immoral purposes." More than a century later, Johnson received a posthumous presidential pardon.

Los Angeles in the 1930s provides another example. Carpio explained that's when police began to target Latino youth for joyriding at the same time anti-Mexican sentiment was on the rise.

"Joyriding ordinances were broadly applied to Latino boys specifically, especially when they were driving outside of what were seen as Latino neighborhoods," she said.

During this crackdown, Latino boys were arrested for joyriding at a rate double that of other boys in the city, Carpio said. The charge became the top reason for arrests of Latino boys in L.A. during that time.

"It's not an infraction in driving, but it's rather that police have deemed the person behind the wheel to be suspicious," she said. "It's one of those laws that's deeply prone to racial profiling."

As more communities openly question the entrenched links between policing and public safety, Carpio said it's also imperative to rethink enforcement itself -- even if that shifts from armed police officers to unarmed personnel, or automated cameras.

"Part of what we need to do is move from seeing things like expired tags or broken tail lights from criminal issues to economic issues," she said. "We need to move from enforcement -- which is a word similar to punishment and which doesn't do much to prevent traffic accidents -- to actions that would truly increase our well-being."

MOVING TO 'DISENTANGLE' FROM LAW ENFORCEMENT

An LAPD officer uses a speed gun to keep drivers in check. (Courtesy LAPD via Twitter)

Context is important. And here is why all of that history is tied to Vision Zero.

Since its origin three decades ago in Sweden, the initiative's guiding philosophy has been that people are people and will make mistakes on the road. Knowing that, authorities can decrease how fast cars go by redesigning streets and enforcing traffic laws. The goal is to slow cars down enough so that inevitable human error doesn't cause serious injuries or deaths.

L.A. joined dozens of American cities that have adopted the concept, relying on some version of the traditional "E's" approach to traffic safety: engineering, education and enforcement.

In recent years, some safety advocates have taken a harder look at that enforcement approach.

Leah Shahum, executive director of the U.S.-based nonprofit Vision Zero Network, said in June that her group would start to "disentangle police activity from Vision Zero work." Otherwise, she said, it risks doing harm through over-policing, and further eroding trust between officers and the communities they serve.

Shahum told me that emphasizing enforcement within traffic safety "brings unintended and really harmful consequences."

"We don't want to be causing more disillusionment and danger for people of color -- particularly Black communities -- through police violence," she said.

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Shahum stressed that enforcement doesn't address the root cause of traffic violence -- the lack of investments in disadvantaged communities, which makes streets there more dangerous in the first place.

"They've got the high-speed arterial roads, fast moving traffic, freeway touchdown, a lack of good sidewalks and bike lanes for people ... we know that those communities are already less safe places to be," she told me. "We need to be shifting resources and funding and priorities from 'police, police police' to invest in the streets, invest in the communities themselves, to be safe places from the start."

Hundreds of city planners across the nation recently voiced a similar sentiment in an open letter to the American Planning Association, in which they urge the organization to support the movement to defund police departments.

"Planners work to create 'safe streets' for pedestrians and bikers, while overlooking the fact that public spaces are not safe for people targeted by the police," the letter reads. "Initiatives like Vision Zero rely on police-led enforcement and may inadvertently direct additional resources to police."

That's not to say that police enforcement doesn't have any impact on traffic safety. For example, a 2014 study linked more DUI arrests with a lower rate of drunk-driver involved crashes. However, the same study found that sobriety checkpoints "did not have a significant relationship to drinking-driver crashes."

But how effective is armed policing compared to alternative methods of enforcement?

Improved street design can slow drivers down. A camera can issue dozens of speeding tickets in the time it takes a police officer to clock, stop and cite one driver.

Transportation and safety advocates argue that investing in those aspects of traffic safety would go further than our current reliance on law enforcement officers.

HOW DO POLICE FEEL ABOUT REDUCING THOSE ROLES?

(Kyle Grillot/AFP via Getty Images)

Asked about Vision Zero on our newsroom's public affairs show AirTalk in February, LAPD Chief Michel Moore said he'd like to see more improvements in engineering and safety education as key strategies, rather than a "constant reliance on enforcement" to reduce traffic deaths.

Given that, how do LAPD officers feel about the city exploring alternatives to police-based enforcement?

Leaders of the union that represents LAPD officers aren't fans of the recent council motion to reduce the role of police in traffic enforcement -- or of Councilmember Mike Bonin, one of its co-authors.

Craig Lally, president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, or LAPPL, issued a statement in July pointed directly at Bonin:

"When Mike Bonin was running for re-election he said we didn't have enough police officers in his District, he pleaded for more; when he wanted to improve traffic safety, he got rid of vehicle lanes until a recall was organized against him, now he's headline-grabbing again," Lally wrote.

"It's shameful and will end up putting public safety at risk," he continued. "Councilmember Bonin might want to clue in his constituents before he implements red-light and speed cameras that will auto-send tickets to Angelinos and also have unarmed parking enforcement officers crackdown on reckless and drunk drivers on our roads."

Bonin, who represents L.A.'s 11th District and chairs the council's transportation committee, responded with a statement of his own, saying communities he represents do want more law enforcement response -- when it comes to serious and violent crimes.

"If we free LAPD from the need to take collision reports, issue speeding tickets and write citations for a broken tail light, they can focus on real emergencies," he said. "My constituents want a system of public safety that makes Black people and other people of color feel as safe as it does white people. The history of racial bias in traffic stops demands we do things differently and move traffic enforcement from LAPD to other agencies."

I reached out to the LAPD for comment on the study into rethinking police roles in traffic safety. A department spokesperson provided the following statement:

♦︎ ♦︎ ♦︎

"We are still working with the city council to explore non-law enforcement options in traffic enforcement while still ensuring public safety. At this point is too early to comment on any specifics."

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Mark Cronin, a 25-year LAPD veteran and LAPPL director, worked as a motorcycle officer in the city for 18 years, tasked with enforcing traffic laws. He told me he wishes police officers didn't have to write traffic citations, but said the reality of how people behave behind the wheel, plus the lack of investments in safety infrastructure and public transit, make police enforcement necessary.

I asked Cronin about police bias in traffic stops and the push for racial equity in traffic enforcement. He contends that activists and some city leaders are "trying to make this into a big societal thing" that has no basis from his perspective.

"I honestly don't know anything when it comes to race, color, creed, age -- nothing -- until I actually walk up on that vehicle," he said. "I'm looking at 'what did that car do?'"

But that assertion -- which Cronin made three times in our interview -- is not invariably true, according to Captain Jonathan Pinto of the LAPD's South Traffic Division.

"It's situational based on the officer," Pinto told me, using pulling over a motorist for texting while driving as an example.

"The officer's going to look through the window and see that the driver is distracted" before making that stop, he said.

Pinto said that in some cases, an officer may well not have seen the driver or passengers, say if the vehicle whizzed by at a dangerous speed. But officers are required to fill out a report for each traffic stop, Pinto explained, which includes a question asking if the officer knew the ethnicity of persons inside a vehicle prior to stopping it. And sometimes that answer is yes.

A Stanford-led study analyzed some 95 million police traffic stop records and found that Black drivers "are much less likely to be stopped after sunset, when 'a veil of darkness' masks their race."

Cronin said police officers who work traffic have a "calling," to save lives and reduce crashes. He doesn't think the solution is enforcement through cameras and unarmed city workers; the "human filter" that police provide is essential, he argued. Passing that role to LADOT, which he called "a revenue-generating machine," won't lead to safer streets, he said.

But Cronin also acknowledged that police enforcement has limited impact. He shared his "disheartening" experiences conducting traffic safety operations, where plainclothes officers play the role of pedestrians crossing the street in marked crosswalks, sometimes wearing costumes -- in one case the Easter bunny -- to stand out even more. Time and time again, drivers fail to yield, leading to close calls and citations.

"You can go and you can write a lot of tickets in a given spot," Cronin said. "Well-marked, lit, painted, crosswalk, flashing lights, signs, everything ... if you hung out 10 minutes afterwards, it went right back to the same behavior."

"We think we're making actual inroads and we're really not, long-term," he said. "It just doesn't last."

SO WHAT WILL LAST?

On average over the past ten years, 15 cyclists were killed annually by drivers on L.A. streets. (Courtesy LADOT)

That's the vital question cities are actively exploring.

In June, New York City-based nonprofit Transportation Alternatives released a report, calling on the mayor to reallocate "significant portions" of the NYPD's traffic budget to the city's DOT, so it can ramp up design and construction of "self-enforcing streets."

Those are streets designed with a goal of keeping vehicles moving at safe speeds and making pedestrians, cyclists and other road users visible and protected from car traffic. That includes separated bike lanes, leading pedestrian intervals (giving crosswalk users a head start at intersections) and curb extensions.

By building roads that compel drivers to behave a certain way, traffic laws basically enforce themselves, the argument goes, leading to fewer traffic collisions. The Federal Highway Administration said in early 2018 that roadways designed this way "can be effective in producing speed compliance and may contribute to less severe crash outcomes."

Transportation Alternatives said this can be achieved without traditional police enforcement, which "puts people of color at risk." Its report cited several news reports and studies on the disproportionate rate at which Black and Latino New Yorkers are stopped and ticketed for jaywalking and cycling on the sidewalk, and stopped and frisked.

"If the goal of the armed policing of traffic is to change behavior on streets and sidewalks, the use of infrastructural and design-based control devices has proven significantly more effective," the report states.

For example, on one Brooklyn street where the city DOT added a protected bike lane and other safety improvements in 2010, injury crashes fell 63% and speeding dropped by more than 50%. The number of cyclists on the route skyrocketed.

WHAT CAN BE DONE ABOUT SPEEDING?

(Courtesy LAPD South Traffic Division via Twitter)

Speed is the top factor in deadly traffic collisions. As you drive faster your field of vision narrows, your reaction time slows and your car takes longer to stop -- dangers recognized for at least 60 years.

Even a 5-mph difference in vehicle speed can mean life or death for a pedestrian or cyclist hit by a car. Someone struck at 35 mph has a 68% chance of survival; that survival rate plummets to 35% if the vehicle is going 40 mph.

The National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) released new guidelines this summer, proclaiming flat-out: "We cannot reduce traffic fatalities on U.S. city streets without reducing speeds."

NACTO officials also acknowledged the systemic racism that has permeated many cities' approaches to street design and traffic enforcement. Years of disinvestment in lower-income neighborhoods and communities of color has led to a lack of the safety infrastructure present in whiter neighborhoods -- and a corresponding increase in fatal collisions. Police officers can't solve that problem, the authors contend.

"In many areas, cities rely on police enforcement to compensate for a lack of flexibility in engineering and speed limit setting policies, a practice that is not proven to reduce traffic injuries or fatalities and often increases risk for Black people and other people of color on city streets," NACTO officials said.

HAVE ANY CITIES MADE STREETS SAFER WITHOUT POLICE?

Progress is not linear; there's no "easy button" to solve traffic safety. But some U.S. cities -- following examples set in Europe -- are making concerted efforts to reduce speeding and invest in enforcement other than police, with some promising results.

Both Seattle and New York have lowered speed limits in recent years and saw traffic collisions fall.

The presence of police officers and the risk of getting a speeding ticket is a deterrent for unsafe driving, but in Seattle a recent study showed that police enforcement wasn't necessary to reduce speeding and crashes.

The first step city officials there took was lowering speed limits to 25 mph on about half of its major roadways. They then monitored several roadways where the speed limit was lowered from 30 mph to 25 mph.

In a 21-month period, they found that just lowering speed limits and posting more frequent signage "absent any marketing campaigns, additional enforcement, re-timed signal progressions, or engineering changes ... resulted in lower speeds and fewer crashes."

Crashes that caused injuries and deaths dropped 18% on the streets studied, and collisions fell 22% overall. Speeding drivers going over 40 mph fell by more than half.

New York City installed automated speed cameras in dozens of school zones and saw speeding drop by 60%, while injuries dropped by 17%, according to city data. (Courtesy New York City Department of Transportation via Twitter)

And when New York City launched its Vision Zero program in 2014, officials there received state authorization to lower the speed limit from 30 mph to 25 mph on most of its streets. They also launched a public awareness campaign -- both on the streets and through social media -- informing New Yorkers that speed limits were going down and explaining why.

"We wanted everyone to know that it's not just signage that's going to change [things] overnight," said Julia Kite-Laidlaw, director of strategic initiatives for the city's Department of Transportation. "It's how you have to think about the road, because even a tiny difference in speed can make a huge difference in survivability."

Over the next several years, traffic deaths in New York City fell by almost one-third, from 299 the year before Vision Zero to 202 in 2018. The number of pedestrians killed by people driving cars fell about 37%.

Fatalities in NYC were up last year, though, due in large part to a dramatic increase in the number of cyclists killed (from 10 people in 2018 to 28 in 2019). But measuring from 2013 (the year before NYC adopted Vision Zero) through 2019 (the last full year of data), traffic deaths have fallen more than 25% in the city. Pedestrian deaths are down roughly 33%.

It wasn't just reducing speed limits that helped in New York, though; a multifaceted approach with high political and public buy-in also led to hundreds of street improvements to better protect road users not in cars. New York City is completing more than 150 street-improvement projects each year through Vision Zero -- about triple what it had been doing before the initiative launched.

By way of comparison, Los Angeles, which manages 1,500 more miles of road than New York City, currently has a total of 63 Vision Zero improvement projects either planned, underway or completed over five years, according to LADOT officials.

Then there's enforcement, some of which has come through the traditional method of police officers writing tickets. According to NYC's Department of Transportation, NYPD officers wrote more than 150,000 speeding tickets in 2018, nearly double the pre-Vision Zero average. And last year, officers issued more than 81,000 citations to drivers who failed to yield to pedestrians.

But that ramped up police enforcement pales in comparison to the success of NYC's automated speed enforcement program, which has used cameras to catch violators since 2014. Managed by transportation officials, not police, Kite-Laidlaw said it has been "effective beyond our wildest dreams."

The program has issued more than 6 million tickets, roughly 2.3 million last year alone, according to NYCDOT officials. And in 140 school zones, where cameras operate weekdays from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., speeding has dropped 60%.

WHAT ABOUT EQUITY ISSUES IN TICKETING? UNPAID TRAFFIC TICKETS CAN HAVE A CASCADING EFFECT

There's no question issuing more citations is a way to let drivers know they should slow down -- no one enjoys paying fines or attending mandated traffic school. But while a traffic ticket might be an inconvenience to some drivers, it can lead to financial ruin for others.

In California and cities across the U.S., Black and Latino drivers are disproportionately cited for traffic violations and arrested for unpaid fines. And when those fines stack up, it can be hard to get out from under them.

States and cities have launched ticket forgiveness and amnesty programs, some of which have come in the wake of the pandemic.

Safety advocates like Leah Shahum say it's important to explore ways to "invest in the education and knowledge side" of traffic safety rather than relying on "the punitive, fine and fee system."

The city of San Francisco, for example, offers payment plans and community service as an alternative to a steep parking or traffic ticket.

That's one reform Mark Cronin, the former LAPD traffic officer, says he and fellow police officers would support.

"The politicians and the legislature have made fine structures so incredibly impossibly high," he told me. "That needs to be looked at from a reform standpoint."

SO WHY ISN'T L.A. LOWERING SPEED LIMITS OR INSTALLING CAMERAS?

Cyclists cross a busy street in Koreatown. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

One reason: California law does not allow it. The city can't unilaterally reduce speed limits or install automated cameras unless state lawmakers amend some long-established rules.

An earlier attempt to explore speed cameras in California was halted after opposition from law enforcement, according to State Assemblyman David Chiu, who represents part of San Francisco and co-authored the legislation back in 2017.

The bill called for a pilot program to study the impact of speed cameras on some of that city's most dangerous corridors, but it was stalled, Chiu said, "due to some concerns raised by some pockets in law enforcement."

Police questioned "whether this would have the impact that we have seen it to have in other jurisdictions," he told me," as well as "how it might change law enforcement operations."

Chiu said he will look into reintroducing the bill in the fall session.

"We need to make sure that we're saving lives and reducing speeding and doing it in a way that makes sense for our cities," he said. "We believe automated speed enforcement would be that."

The proliferation of speeding presents another challenge in L.A. And despite the growing push to lower speed limits, Los Angeles drivers are going faster as the city regularly raises speed limits.

Last year, legal speeds were increased on more than 100 miles of its streets, some of which are part of the High-Injury Network -- roads that are known to be highly dangerous for pedestrians (70% of all pedestrian deaths and serious injuries in L.A. occur within the HIN).

THAT DOESN'T MAKE ANY SENSE. HOW IS THAT POSSIBLE?

(Courtesy Los Angeles Department of Transportation)

A growing number of city leaders, safety officials and policy experts agree. And they want California to change the rule that mandates how speed limits are set in the state.

It's called the 85th percentile rule, and as I recently reported, new research found it's not well-supported by science, and plays a role in the rise of traffic deaths in the state.

"Not only is it a stupid law, it's also a dangerous law because we know that the faster people are going, the more likely someone who gets hit by a car is going to die," Councilmember Bonin told me earlier this year. "It actually has deadly consequences."

Broadly, here's how the rule works: If enough people are driving faster than the posted limit, the limit is increased. Say the posted speed limit on a city street is 30 mph. In order for police to enforce that speed limit using radar or laser, the city generally has to conduct surveys every seven to 10 years to determine how fast people are driving on that street.

If the results show that at least 85% of drivers are traveling at or below 33 mph in that 30 mph zone, the 85th percentile rule requires the city to round the speed limit to the nearest interval of five. That means the new posted speed limit would be 35 mph. The original intent of the law was to prevent the creation of speed traps to generate revenue for municipalities.

In NACTO's recent guidelines, L.A. is cited as a cautionary tale to highlight the dangers of the rule; for example, it led the city to increase the speed limit on one San Fernando Valley street by 10 mph in about 10 years' time. That street, Zelzah Avenue, is part of L.A.'s High-Injury Network.

"When it comes to safety, this method is designed to fail," the authors wrote.

A new bill introduced in Sacramento in February by Assemblywoman Laura Friedman aims to amend the 85th percentile rule to give cities more control over setting speed limits. The bill was referred to the transportation committee, but the committee declined to hear it this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Friedman spokesperson Blake Dellinger.

"I do not believe these efforts will be moving forward this year," he told me.

WOULD CAR-CENTRIC L.A. EVEN EMBRACE SPEED CAMERAS?

Pedestrians cross a busy intersection near the Wilshire/Vermont Metro station in Koreatown. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

Safety experts and city leaders say that depends on how they're implemented (if they're ever approved for use in the state).

Earlier this year, a California task force released a report on the deadly consequences of speeding and speed-setting methods and presented automated cameras as a possible solution.

The task force acknowledged some limitations of cameras, including that drivers may continue to speed after encountering a camera and the fact that speed cameras have been challenged in court on constitutional grounds. The report also notes a negative public perception of the cameras as a means to make more money for an agency or city as opposed to a tool to make streets safer.

One suggestion from the report: mandating that the revenue generated through speed camera programs only be used to fund that program and other road safety initiatives so it doesn't become a cash cow for cities or law enforcement broadly.

Besides the idea that automated cameras could be a self-sustaining funding model for street improvements, some argue that they also have the virtue of being unbiased in issuing tickets, because they're designed to target vehicles exceeding a certain speed, regardless of who the driver is.

Harris-Dawson said he'll support "anything that helps us create more safety and reduce the incidence in which, as a part of everyday life, you have to confront an armed government worker."

He also said city leaders will need to take into consideration serious concerns about racial bias in camera technology and questions raised about privacy.

"I think people's safety concerns and privacy concerns are rightly placed, because historically the government has not been trustworthy," Harris-Dawson said. "And the controls need to be put in place to make sure that they are."

LA'S STREET SAFETY SHORTFALLS

A billboard urges drivers to slow down as part of Los Angeles' Vision Zero program in 2017. (Courtesy Los Angeles Department of Transportation via Flickr)

There's another reason behind the rising death toll on L.A. streets, which I've reported on before: The city's leaders haven't invested enough in Vision Zero to make meaningful progress and save lives. That's the consensus of traffic experts, safety advocates, and even some of those city leaders.

"The thing that's missing from Vision Zero is the implementation, to be honest," City Councilman Bonin told me earlier this year. "We approved the plan and we talked about the plan, but we have not moved forward with it ... it's gotten a little bit of money every year, but it still is not something that is sort of a living, breathing initiative in Los Angeles."

A few budget cycles ago, LADOT General Manager Seleta Reynolds estimated Vision Zero would need $80 million for the 2017-18 fiscal year if leaders hoped to achieve Garcetti's goal of a 20% reduction in traffic deaths by the end of 2017. The program ended up with roughly one-third of that amount.

For the current fiscal year budget, Vision Zero initially received about $51.4 million -- the most since its inception in 2015. The LAPD has been allotted $1.5 million annually from the program's budget over the past three fiscal years.

Due to budget shortfalls brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, officials from the mayor's office say Vision Zero will be cut 5% in the next fiscal year.

WHEN COULD WE SEE A DIFFERENT APPROACH ON LOCAL STREETS?

(Courtesy LADOT)

We'll have a better sense of that when the City Council starts hearing ideas from LADOT and the city's office of the chief legislative analyst -- through consultations with community members. The motion seeking alternative ways to improve traffic safety was submitted to the Ad Hoc Committee on Police Reform on June 30 and the first report back was due in 90 days, meaning we may know more in late September or early October.

The slow pace of legislation in Sacramento could further stall any efforts to rethink speed limits and camera-based enforcement, but the city council and Mayor Garcetti could take steps to redelegate some duties -- and funding -- from police to LADOT.

For their part, LADOT officials "look forward to working with Council, the Mayor's office, and community leaders across the City on these critical issues," said department spokesperson Colin Sweeney.

In the meantime, if you'd like to see safety improvements on some of your local streets, you have options.

You can submit a service request to LADOT, although the department website where you can do that is a bit tricky -- and was reconfigured recently to focus on "essential COVID-related requests."

Back in May, the city launched a temporary "Slow Streets" program, which aims to promote more equitable neighborhood streets so people can more safely walk, bike and exercise in their communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. The program is managed by LADOT, which deploys signs on residential streets, alerting drivers that certain roadways are for local traffic only, and reminding them to slow down and share the road.

The Slow Streets program launched in the Del Rey and Sawtelle neighborhoods last week. LADOT has received more than 175 applications from residents and community groups that want the initiative on their streets. (Courtesy office of L.A. City Councilmember Mike Bonin)

Residents who want the program for their own streets can apply online -- but applicants must include a "sponsoring organization" like a neighborhood council or city councilmember's office to demonstrate local support.

As of early September, more than 25 neighborhoods had joined the program, and a council committee is considering how the city might make the program a permanent fixture on L.A. streets.


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