Skip to Content
Streetsblog San Francisco home
Streetsblog San Francisco home
Log In

Should Citizens be Able to Report Traffic Violations?

An SFMTA PCO tries to get a scofflaw motorist to get out of the bike lane. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

Every cell phone in every pocket in America could be transformed into a portable traffic camera, capable of issuing misbehaving motorists a ticket with little more than a few swipes on a touch screen.

It's a fantasy or nightmare, depending on whom you ask — and it's a hot topic now that the New York City Council is considering legislation that would deputize residents to flag cars blocking sidewalks, bike and bus lanes within a certain distance of schools and would pay the citizen traffic enforcer 25 percent of the fine, just they are currently paid for reporting idling violations.

The bill has prompted some advocates to call for cities across America to adopt similar policies — while others are cautioning against what they say would be a disaster for civil liberties with little safety benefit.

Advocates weren't the only ones wondering whether citizen traffic enforcement should become more widespread.

Amid the widespread coverage of the New York City proposal, a Silicon Valley company announced that it had been awarded a patent for a new app called SafeSense that would "collect, analyze, and verify user-generated traffic incident reports with artificial intelligence," in hopes of "scaling traffic enforcement significantly enough to change driver behavior." The app would theoretically help cities fine for parking and moving violations based on citizen footage, as well as automatically filtering out justifiable violations, like a driver temporarily entering the bike lane to make a legal turn.

It's not clear whether most cities could actually rely on artificial intelligence to expedite the ticketing process for citizen-submitted traffic incidents — footage from AI-equipped stationary traffic cameras generally still have to be reviewed by human officers — but proponents say the safety potential is worth overcoming those challenges. A citizen-led enforcement campaign, after all, could theoretically remove armed officers from the kind of routine traffic stops that too often escalate to violence, particularly for people of color; a cell phone, meanwhile, can be carried anywhere that traffic violence might take place, rather than the handful of traffic lights where cities an afford to install an automated enforcement camera.

"As traffic patterns return to pre-pandemic levels, there is an enhanced need to enforce these laws, and crowdsourcing of violations is one tool that can be leveraged to do so," said Charley Territo of Hayden AI, which developed the app. "While there are very few cities that have launched these types of programs, knowing that there is technology available that can be used by citizens to do so will only help expedite the adoption of these types of policies. ... There’s no reason why, as long as the rules of due process are followed, that evidence should be treated any differently than the evidence captured by a law enforcement officer."

Critics of citizen enforcement, though, say that there's a big difference between the evidence captured by police and a photo snapped on a passerby's iPhone — even if that phone is equipped with advanced AI technology and a direct line to the cops.

For all the deeply valid criticism of officer-involved (and even some types of automated) traffic enforcement, cops are at least theoretically trained to do their jobs according to agreed-upon public standards, however broken those rules and that training might be. As Washington Post journalist Luz Lazo wrote in 2019, critics of a proposed D.C. law that would have deputized 80 regular citizens to issue parking citations warned that the program would "increase favoritism and discrimination in traffic crackdowns and hurt the impartiality generally associated with traffic enforcement," without creating an obvious way to hold a civilian citer accountable if, say, he chose to snap photos of speeding violations only committed by Black motorists.

Others argued that citizen-enforcers could themselves be endangered if the motorists they attempted to cite had guns, particularly if the person taking the photo wasn't wearing a uniform. If the civilian enforcer exercised his right to bear arms, meanwhile, that could easily lead to racist violence, too.

And it must be noted that even an "equitable" citizen enforcement program would not truly be just if it were used to supercharge the enforcement of unjust laws, particularly those that govern environments designed in unjust ways. An advanced AI program could someday, after all, be used to ticket people for riding their bikes on the sidewalk — even if their neighborhoods don't have them, as communities of color often don't.

"In general, deputizing everyone to do the work of law enforcement is not a great idea," said Lisa Foster, co-executive director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center. "It smacks of vigilantism; it’s un-American in a very fundamental way."

Foster notes, though, that the more fundamental concern with civilian enforcement is how it distracts from solutions that might make citations themselves unnecessary, such as a barrier that physically prevents a driver from parking in a cycle track before a neighbor ever has the chance to snap a photo of her car. Some street safety advocates might argue, of course, that most U.S. cities are unlikely to protect every bike lane within their borders anytime soon — though others might counter that giving them money every time someone gets caught endangering a cyclist in a paint-only lane can tacitly incentivize municipalities not to build bollards at all.

That debate might be solved if cities were required by law to dedicated fine revenue exclusively to Vision Zero projects, which almost none of them are now. If a good chunk of that money were diverted, though, that would dilute the potential funding for self-enforcing infrastructure even further, while providing a whole new population with a powerful incentive to focus on deterrence strategies over more holistic, prevention-based approaches.

On top of that, Foster points out that for some, true deterrence can be difficult to achieve through fines alone — while for others, even the smallest financial penalty can be catastrophic.

"The problem with the flat fine structure we currently have is that they're the same amount regardless of an individual’s economic circumstances," she adds. "If our goal is deterrence, which it should be, the amount it would take to deter me is going to more than the amount it would take to deter a minimum wage worker — and a lot less than, say, Michael Bloomberg or Donald Trump. ... For many people, a $100 parking ticket means they’re going to sacrifice buying food, or paying the rent, or paying for healthcare, just to pay that fine."

As advocates debate what an effective and equitable approach to traffic enforcement might look like, though, American road users are still dying in record numbers — and some think citizen enforcement itself, if done right, might help save lives. (Supporters of the New York law, for example, cite the case of Madison Lyden, a cyclist who was killed after being forced out of a bike lane by an illegally parked taxi whose driver might have thought twice if he or she was subject to a ticket.)

Hayden AI reps points out that even if their app is never used to issue a single fine, it could be used to document where dangerous driving is happening beyond the view of stationary cameras and cops, and that its analytics could efficiently flag which locations are most in need of infrastructure investment.

"One way to address issues [of bias] is with data," added Territo. "The Safe Sense app and the data and insights that it’s able to provide will better inform cities and other municipalities about the different types of violations that are occurring, where they’re happening, and more importantly, provide a way for citizens who believe their communities are underserved to have additional tools at their disposal to document these types of violations."

If a citizen enforcement campaign became a citizen data-collection effort that leads to a revolution in road design, maybe American police might never need to write another ticket — and cities might even be able to pay residents for their contributions out of the massive pot of money that would likely be saved by ending serious car crashes.

"Parking in a bike lane or blocking access to a sidewalk isn't safe, and  it can cause real harm," added Foster. "The question for us is, how do you best solve that problem? Do we, frankly, take the easy way out, and say that the answer is to cite and fine people for that behavior — rather than trying to understand what we could do to prevent them [from doing it in the first place]?"

Stay in touch

Sign up for our free newsletter

More from Streetsblog San Francisco

Port Lobbyists Trying to Kill Bike and Pedestrian Safety in Oakland

Trucking/port lobbyists want to destroy a long-established plan to build protected bike lanes connecting Jack London Square, West Oakland, and downtown

July 11, 2024
See all posts