S.F. Looks Into Installing Cameras That Send Automated Speeding Tickets By Mail

San Francisco wants to eliminate all traffic deaths by 2024 — an ambitious plan, called Vision Zero, that combines new traffic signals and crosswalks with stricter law enforcement. A report released by the City Controller’s Office yesterday examines what could be a controversial new tool in the city’s war on mean streets: Automated Speed Enforcement (ASE).

You've no doubt heard of ASE cameras. Major cities such as Chicago are a perpetual Panopticon thanks to them, as are smaller metros including Denver and Portland. The cameras are mounted, Big Brother-style, on infrastructure like light posts or installed on vans that park in targeted neighborhoods. The cameras detect and photograph multiple speeding cars per minute, and issue citations by mail.

Sounds like a plum moneymaker for the city, right?

[jump] The report aims to disabuse you of such crazy notions. ASE-issued fines should be lower than traditional speeding tickets, it advises, and ASE vendors “should be compensated based on specific services provided as listed in a contract rather than on the number of citations issued.” Also, warning tickets should be issued for at least 30 days before it’s time to start dispensing the real deal. 

“The program is about reducing speeding for safety rather than for revenue generation,” the report says.

Okay, but that doesn't mean revenue generation is moot. The report surveyed six cities that have implemented ASE — Chicago, New York, Denver, Portland, Seattle, and Washington D.C. — to offer cost analysis.

Here’s the program’s operating costs:

And here’s the money it brings in:

There’s also the tricky matter of privacy, which in a city like San Francisco is sure to be an albatross around ASE’s neck. The report found that “most jurisdictions do not identify the driver of the vehicle.” However, each jurisdiction does hold onto its ASE data (which is encrypted). New York never deletes it. Washington D.C. deletes it after 60 days, although it’s retained by the DMV and can be accessed by police. Portland, meanwhile, maintains access to its data for up to five years; Denver does the same for three.

So is ASE effective?

Here’s the breakdown of citations issued per year, percentage paid, and percentage challenged:

As the Chronicle reports, backers of the program cite “a 70 percent drop in fatal collisions in Washington over a decade and a 31 percent drop in speeding vehicles in Chicago during the first year of that city’s program. In Scottsdale, Ariz., a nine-month camera pilot program achieved an 88 percent decline in vehicles driving 11 mph or more above the 65-mph limit.”

No matter how effective the program or how persuasive the numbers, some drivers just can't shake the sneaking suspicion that the city is angling for a streamlined way to make more money.

As Scott Gordon, a 28-year-old Lyft driver, told the Chronicle, “Speeding’s not an issue. It’s crosswalks. From what I see, it’s poorly designed intersections. It’s people running red lights. It just seems like it’s another way to dish out tickets.”

The good news, for opponents of the proposal, is that California state law prohibits speed cameras. San Francisco would have to pressure Sacramento to lift the ban before rolling out ASE here. In New York, the implementation and legislation process took 10 years.    

The process here probably won't be speedy, either.

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