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Speed Cameras In LA? A New Bill Would Allow CA Cities To Explore The Technology

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Nearly 250 people are killed annually in crashes on Los Angeles city streets, and hundreds more are injured. Speed is a top factor in fatal traffic collisions, especially when a driver kills a pedestrian.

If a flagship safety program and increased police enforcement haven't made meaningful progress in reducing crashes and saving lives, what will? Some state and local leaders say it's time for speed cameras.

State Assemblymember David Chiu announced AB 550 today, saying it will allow local cities to "use proven safety tools and end these senseless deaths."

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"At a certain point, we have to say enough is enough," Chiu, D-San Francisco, said in a press release. "These deaths are completely preventable. We have the tools to save lives."

The bill would direct the state's transportation agency to develop guidelines for speed camera pilot programs so local cities could launch their own versions. The bill would require the programs to be run by local transportation agencies, not police.

In L.A., that would mean the city's Department of Transportation, which supports the legislation. LADOT Director Seleta Reynolds provided this statement to LAist:

"Excessive speeding takes so much from our communities -- and this deadly trend has only worsened during the pandemic. Automated Speed Enforcement is a proven street safety tool that has reduced traffic deaths and injuries by 70% in other cities. With this bill, we can allow cities to develop thoughtful programs to deploy this technology equitably while protecting individual privacy."

Speed camera systems use radar or laser technology to measure vehicle speed, and snap a photo of cars being driven a certain speed over the limit. L.A. previously used red light cameras on city streets, though that program was discontinued nearly a decade ago.

Generally -- and in L.A. specifically -- traffic violence disproportionately impacts low-income residents and communities of color, due in part to historic underinvestment of safety infrastructure in those communities.

The bill seeks to address equity and privacy issues in a few key 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.
  • Speeding tickets would be capped at $125.
  • 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. Chiu says the cameras would take photos of "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," according to Chiu's office.

(Courtesy LAPD South Traffic Division via Twitter)

This isn't the first time Chiu has pushed to bring speed cameras to California streets. In 2017, a bill he authored to create a pilot program in the Bay Area died in the Assembly.

Chiu previously told me that bill's failure was the result of "concerns raised by some pockets in law enforcement," who questioned if speed cameras would work locally, as well as "how it might change law enforcement operations."

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But changing law enforcement operations is something Chiu highlighted as a key goal of the push for speed camera programs.

"Traditional policing of unsafe speeding hasn't succeeded in part because our officers are understandably focused on more serious and violent crimes," he said during a virtual media briefing today. "The impact of this law enforcement on communities of color has been well documented, as drivers of color are much more likely to be pulled over. We need new tools that will protect public safety."

Traffic stops are the most common interactions between police and the public, and camera-based speed enforcement is seen as a way to reduce those encounters while still holding drivers accountable. A camera could potentially cite dozens of dangerous drivers in the time it would take a police officer to clock, stop and issue a ticket to just one.

AB 550 is expected to be heard by an Assembly committee this spring, according to Chiu's office.

There's another issue that complicates efforts to crack down on dangerous drivers: L.A. and other California cities are regularly raising speed limits.

That's because of the state-mandated 85th percentile rule, which a coalition of national transportation experts say "significantly limits cities' ability to reduce traffic deaths." It requires speeds be set based on how fast drivers travel, and generally does not account for other road users and conditions.

A separate bill from Assemblymember Laura Friedman, D-Glendale, seeks to pause, evaluate and possibly amend the rule. It's expected to go before the state Assembly in April.

Elsewhere in the U.S., cities have been able to deter speeding drivers, reduce crashes and save lives with speed cameras and other programs that don't rely on armed police officers to make traffic stops.

You can learn more about that, how speed limits currently work in California and more reporting on street safety issues below:

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