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State bill may spur automated cameras to catch speeding drivers in SF

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A car speeds down Broadway Street in San Francisco’s Chinatown district Thursday, September 29, 2016. (Jessica Christian/S.F Examiner)

Speed kills.

That’s the unified message repeated by state and local legislators in support of a bill announced Wednesday by Assemblymember David Chiu, D-San Francisco, which would legalize automated speed enforcement cameras and allow their installation across California.

Per Assembly Bill 342, the cameras would automatically snap a photo of cars going more than 10 mph over the posted speed limit, and could only be installed in San Francisco and San Jose as a five-year pilot program.

Already widely used in Portland, Chicago, and New York City, the cameras have reduced speeding related fatalities by as high as 53 percent in some cities, Chiu and a bevy of experts said at a news conference at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital on Wednesday.

Slowing down vehicles even a bit, they said, saves lives. And the threat of tickets, studies of the cameras have shown, is effective at encouraging drivers not to speed.

“Despite these dramatic results,” Chiu told reporters, “this legislation will not be easy.”

State Senator Scott Wiener signed on as a co-author, and the bill also has support of Assemblymember Phil Ting (D-San Francisco).

Still, Chiu’s bill, the Safe Streets Act of 2017, met hard opposition when he quietly tested the waters with it last year. Though no bill was formally introduced, privacy experts preemptively lambasted the mass surveillance of vehicles, and law enforcement groups worried the cameras may make their ticket-writing officers obsolete.

“It wasn’t exactly where we wanted it to be,” Chiu told the San Francisco Examiner on Wednesday, of the effort in 2016. But, he added, “Over the past year we’ve had hundreds of conversations to take on these issues.”

Some of the biggest pushback at the state level came from groups like the Peace Officers Research Association of California, San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo told the Examiner.

The Peace Officers Research Association of California could not immediately be reached for comment.

Doug Villars, president of the California Association of Highway Patrolmen, said automated cameras may violate California Vehicle Code 22350, which states no person shall drive a vehicle on a highway at speeds greater than are “reasonable or prudent.”

For instance, Villars said, that code means vehicles should drive slower in rainy weather, but should be given more leeway if they’re the only car on the road at 3 a.m. –– leeway a human officer can offer, but not automated cameras.

Much of Chiu’s work to compromise is noted in the finer details of the bill. The cameras could not be installed on freeways, in what may be a nod to the California Highway Patrol, and images taken would be of license plates only, in what may be an attempt to quell those concerned about privacy.

And potentially reassuring to those who say the effort is a wallet grab, tickets would be capped at $100 per citation, though they can run more than $200 in other parts of the country.

While some are concerned the cameras may threaten law enforcement jobs, where ticket-writing is more prevalent, supporters of Chiu’s bill contended that officers’ jobs won’t be replaced.

“We see no reason why automated speed enforcement is viewed as a technology that can supplant the deployment of a police officer,” Liccardo said. “If we quadrupled the number of police officers tomorrow in the city of San Jose, we still wouldn’t have enough police officers to have enough impact to reduce unsafe speeds in our corridors.”

Mayor Ed Lee told the Examiner he, alongside Chiu, would lead talks with the the San Francisco Police Officers Association, the union of the San Francisco Police Department’s officers, in an attempt to bring them on board with the bill.

“I told Assemblymember Chiu I’ll do everything I can, and hopefully we’ll have that dialogue,” the mayor said.

But, he added, he hopes all concerned –– and especially critics –– realize the bill is being pushed forward primarily with safety in mind, and not as a “grab of the wallet of drivers.”

“We’re doing it for the right reasons,” Lee said. “We should never allow this to be articulated as a revenue generator so much as it’s a driver of a higher level of safety.”

Notably, an average of 30 people are killed by traffic fatalities in San Francisco annually, and more than 500 injured, with related medical costs in The City exceeding $35 million annually.

SFPD Chief William Scott said, “Unsafe speed is one of the leading causes” of traffic deaths. And five other SFPD rank and file, including Traffic Company Cmdr. Robert O’Sullivan and Deputy Chief Mikail Ali, stood among the advocates backing the bill on the new cameras.

But political consultant Jim Ross said speculating whether law enforcement will back Chiu’s bill is like “picking out a minor league pitcher and being able to say if they’ll make it to the major leagues, and then the World Series.”

In other words, it’s too far out to tell if the effort to snag speedsters will get slowed down.

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