We Can Stop Speeders and Save Lives. Why Aren’t We Doing It?

San Francisco families remember loved ones killed on our streets. Photo courtesy of Walk San Francisco.
Family members and survivors honor the victims of traffic crashes. Photo courtesy of Walk San Francisco

A few years ago, while visiting France, I drove with a friend from Paris to Normandy on the A-13 motorway. We set the cruise-control at the speed limit. To my surprise, nobody passed us. Contrast that to any road in California, where if you go the speed limit, you will be passed continually.

That’s because if you speed on the A-13, you will get a ticket, whether or not you encounter a cop. French highways are lined with automated speed enforcement (ASE) cameras. Speed past one, and it photographs your license plate. You get a ticket in the mail, just like with a red light camera.

“If we had been using ASE in cities like San Francisco, San Jose, and Los Angeles, many of our loved ones might still be here with us today,” said Nicole Ferrara, executive director of Walk San Francisco, at a recent event remembering people killed by cars. “The state needs to prioritize safety and take steps to implement solutions now.”

In 2013, there were 42 traffic deaths on San Francisco streets. Kate Breen, government affairs director for the SFMTA, stressed that speeding is the number one cause of traffic fatalities. “We want to use ASE cameras to target areas where you find excessive speeds… where you see cars going not one, two or three miles over the limit, but ten to fifteen,” she said.

Breen points to studies that put the survival rate for pedestrians struck by cars going 20 mph at 90 percent. But up that speed to 40 mph, and the survival rate plummets to 20 percent. Breen said that’s why it’s so important to use every available tool to keep speed in check. “ASE is a force multiplier for police enforcement.”

And one doesn’t have to go to France to see automated enforcement at work. Portland, Oregon, is one of a handful of cities using it in North America: It reported a 53 percent reduction in fatalities where cameras were put in. Traffic deaths in Washington, DC, have likewise fallen by more than 50 percent as the city has rolled out more automated enforcement over the past several years.

Breen said the point isn’t to “gotcha” speeders. Portland, for instance, uses huge signs warning about the cameras, much like we see “speed limit radar enforced” signs today. “We want to give people every opportunity to obey the law,” she said.

So what’s holding back automated speed enforcement in the Bay Area?

California requires authorization from the legislature to use automated enforcement. And legislative experts say privacy concerns are primarily what’s holding it back. “There’s a history of attempts to do this that didn’t even get a hearing in the first committee,” said a legislative aide who asked not to be identified. That doesn’t mean it can’t happen, he added, explaining that it’s going to require making it clear that this is about saving lives, not generating revenue or going Big Brother on the public.

The privacy issue strikes me as a red herring. There are already cameras everywhere. And our cell phones broadcast where we go every day. The SF Controller’s office suggested keeping fines lower than standard moving violations, since the cameras identify the registered owner of the car, not who was actually driving it. Such steps might deflect some of the opposition.

If people are concerned about getting photographed, remember the cameras only take your picture if you trip their speed-monitoring radar. In other words, if you don’t want the cameras to get a shot of your car, don’t speed.

To support ASE, sign WalkSF’s petition.

  • According to the SF Chronicle (back in 2013), 32 Bay Area government agencies have been using license plate scanners for years, including SFPD on most patrol cars. Each patrol car license plate reader logs thousands of cars (with photos and documentation of time and location) during an 8 hour shift. No suspicion of criminal activity is needed for the photo to be taken. The data is shared with the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center.

    The privacy horse is well out of the barn.

  • PaleoBruce

    By agreeing to a license, you accept responsibility for behaviour. Claiming a privacy right for licensed behaviour is a contradiction in terms.

  • DiegoHenry

    The City of San Bernardino had red light cameras for seven years during
    which it issued $30 million worth of tickets (my estimate, using figures
    on the SB Docs page at highwayrobbery.net).
    The City of Redlands had red light cameras, as did a number of the other
    cities near SB.

    On Wednesday the LA Times published an update of its list of mass murders by gun. http://timelines.latimes.com/deadliest-shooting-rampages/
    Of the twenty most recent shootings on the Times list, twelve were in

    cities which have, or had, photo enforcement (red light and/or speed
    cams). Or, have photo enforcement in one or more cities next door. In
    reverse chron order: San Bernardino, Colorado Springs, Chattanooga, Ft.
    Hood (Killeen), Washington DC, Santa Monica, Minneapolis, Aurora,
    Oakland, Seal Beach, Tucson, Ft. Hood, again. Note that four of the twelve were in California, where our photo enforcement fine is $500.00 and the most common camera ticket is for slowly rolling around a right turn.
    With speed cams, I imagine there would be a lot of tickets for 6 mph over the limit.

    Decades ago the post office found
    out, the hard way, that if you systematically torture people just cuz you can, they
    will be mad, and some will go mad.
    Same thing earlier this year in Ferguson.

    So, councilmembers and legislators who vote for cameras “because it just might save a life” need to consider that the cameras might just cost some lives.

  • Flatlander

    There are countless other cities with photo enforcement. Your attempt to implicate traffic safety devices in mass murder is beyond reprehensible.

  • iamjared

    For the same reason we aren’t really doing ANYTHING about ANYTHING. No one really gives a sh!t. They care enough to post on Facebook, and maybe comment here. But the majority of people don’t care enough to go to city hall meetings, or research who/what they’re voting for, or hold their leaders accountable. It’s not about traffic safety, it’s about apathy and being more interested in reality TV than reality.

  • murphstahoe

    If motorists are so unhinged that they will go on a mass murder spree because they got a ticket from a red light camera, we need to ban cars. Period.

  • jcwconsult

    Before speed cameras would be fair to use, we must FIRST set the posted limits at the safest points, the 85th percentile speeds of free flowing traffic under good conditions, rounded to the nearest 5 mph interval. If 85% of the cars are at or under 37-42 mph – post 40 for the safest and smoothest traffic flow with the fewest crashes. Posted at 35, 30, or 25 – that area has higher crash risks and the potential for massive for-profit gotcha camera tickets.

    In any case, speed cameras are illegal in California and likely to stay that way because enough legislators understand they would be used ONLY in the gotcha places where the limits are improperly and less-safely set too low.

    James C. Walker, Life Member – National Motorists Association

  • jcwconsult

    Ticket cameras are used exclusively for revenue, never for safety, because they lose money unless the traffic lights and speed limits are deliberately mis-engineered to produce more tickets with less overall safety. They are a government run robbery racket that should be illegal in every state.

    James C. Walker, Life Member – National Motorists Association

  • Gezellig

    Yep. Driving is a privilege that bears the gravitas of great responsibility and even potential scrutiny, not an entitled right. Too many people act like it’s the latter.

  • City Resident

    Judging by your post, you missed the points made in the article about how speed cameras can be implemented in a manner that supports the proven safety benefit of such an enforcement tool and reduces the predictable and tired claims of “gotcha.” Avoiding speeding tickets is easy.
    From a windshield perspective, the 85th percentile rule is appealing. From a traffic safety, pedestrian, and bicyclist perspective it is terrible and results in deadly roads.

  • jcwconsult

    The problem is speed cameras are very expensive. If the posted limits are set so that safe drivers are legal and there is a modest grace allowance, then the cameras will not record enough violations to even pay their own high costs (typically around $3,500 per month per camera). And no city will use them at a loss. So the posted limits and grace allowances MUST be set up so that a high percentage of tickets go to safe drivers who endangered absolutely no one. That is wrong.

    James C. Walker, Life Member – National Motorists Association

  • PPIT

    Your French highway analogy is irrelevant and your arguments for photo radar are full of holes. French Highways speed limits are set at 130 km/h generally so the reason you don’t see too many people overtaking you on French highways is that the speed limits are set to accommodate the driving habits of the reasonable and safe majority. You cannot compare the behaviour on French highways

  • Roan Kattouw

    One major reason people pass you if you’re going the speed limit in California but not in France is because our freeway speed limit is 65 mph (and sure, 70 in a handful of middle-of-nowhere places) while theirs is 130 km/h (81 mph). Neighbouring countries also use 130 km/h, and some use 120 km/h (75 mph) or a mix of the two. Having lived in one of these countries (the Netherlands), a big part of public acceptance of speed cameras (which are everywhere) is the sense that speed limits are reasonable in most places. If you get a ticket for going 134 in a 130, you blame yourself, because you know you shouldn’t be doing that; if you get a ticket for 110 in a 100 on an empty 10-lane freeway that’s straight as an arrow, you blame the government, or bad luck, because you feel justified going faster than the silly signs are telling you to. California freeways are almost universally in the latter category.

    Where speed kills more, though, is on surface streets, and that’s where we should enforce speed limits (the existing ones) much more.

  • RichLL

    Another problem with camera enforcement is that unless it captures a clear image of the driver’s face, then the driver can always credibly deny that he/she was driving.

    In Europe this is not a problem because they simply say that the registered owner pays the ticket unless he identifies the real driver. But in the US our pesky constitution says that the driver doesn’t have to incriminate himself or anyone else. And absent picture ID there is reasonable doubt.

    Sunglasses and a baseball cap can render photo identification very difficult.

  • Dave Moore

    Breen points to studies that put the survival rate for pedestrians struck by cars going 20 mph at 90 percent. But up that speed to 40 mph, and the survival rate plummets to 20 percent.

    I’ve looked around and can’t find the studies being referred to. I’ve also seen a wide variety of numbers mentioned. Which ones are these? Are they more than simple correlation? Is there anything that shows that in environments where people were going fas that if they reduced their speeds that the death rate would fall (like looking at accidents at the same locations).

  • gneiss


    [Source 1: Killing Speed and Saving Lives, UK Dept. of Transportation, London, England. See also Limpert, Rudolph. Motor Vehicle Accident Reconstruction and Cause Analysis. Fourth Edition. Charlottesville, VA. The Michie Company, 1994, p. 663.]

    [Source 2: Vehicle Speeds and the Incidence of Fatal Pedestrian Collisions prepared by the Austrailian Federal Office of Road Safety, Report CR 146, October 1994, by McLean AJ,Anderson RW, Farmer MJB, Lee BH, Brooks CG.]

  • Dave Moore

    Thanks. That looks really interesting. I expect that braking has improved since the report, but the results still mostly hold.

    Slower speeds do seem to make sense in an urban environment, especially if they bring about more predictability (fewer accidents, less congestion, less stop and go). I’m not a believer in “Vision Zero”, seeing it as political grandstanding and pandering, but still, when things make sense we should at least try them and see if they bring about the desired impacts.

  • freedomisthejungle

    higher speeds kill and hinder reaction time. keep speed limits SAFE, NO MATTER the inconvenience, and the. ENFORCE THEM.


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