Flowers at Gough Street and Geary Boulevard mark the spot where a pedestrian was killed earlier this month. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Speed cameras could be key to achieving Vision Zero goals

City struggling to stem rising traffic deaths

Achieving The City’s ambitious Vision Zero objectives — the end of traffic violence deaths by 2024 — could be hard to do without the help of automated speed enforcement, according to San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Executive Director Jeffrey Tumlin.

“It is arguably the most effective way of creating a rapid and dramatic change in safety outcomes, particularly in reducing pedestrian fatalities,” Tumlin told the SFMTA Board of Directors Tuesday.

Yet it remains illegal in the state of California, requiring authorization at the state level.

Automated speed enforcement is the fancy way to describe speed cameras. Using speed sensors such as radar, they are able to identify when vehicles are traveling at excessive speeds and capture images of the moving car.

Mayor London Breed, Tumlin and a host of advocates have called for legalization of the tool because speed is the greatest factor in whether a collision results in severe injury or death.

“Speed is the No. 1 determining factor in whether someone lives or dies if they are hit,” Jodie Medeiros, executive director of street safety organization WalkSF said.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, automated speed enforcement cameras have contributed to double-digit drops in crashes as well as reduced speeds across cities nationwide where they are in use.

Future of Vision Zero at stake

Tumlin’s comments came in the wake of three pedestrian fatalities in the last five weeks and against the backdrop of a sizable uptick in traffic violence since the start of summer in San Francisco.

Advocates worry the death rate will outpace that of last year, less than four years out from the Vision Zero program’s goal end date.

The most recent fatality was 50-year-old San Francisco resident Mark Berman, who was killed Aug. 11 when he was struck by a driver at Geary Boulevard and Gough Street. He was the seventh pedestrian to be killed by traffic violence this year.

Tumlin told directors Tuesday the driver, 26-year-old Raja Whitfield, was traveling as fast as 65 miles per hour and “recording the reckless behavior for social media” before he ran a red light, killing Berman.

Whitfield has been charged with vehicular manslaughter and remains in jail on a $300,000 bond, according to court records. His next court date is set for Aug. 24.

Tumlin says SFMTA staff has been working to roll out the interventions it is authorized to use to make streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists. These include tools such as daylighting, or painting the curbs red at intersections, red light cameras and turn restrictions at stop light intersections.

On Tuesday, he told the board the agency had added 83 turn restrictions on the high-injury network, the sites of 75% of San Francisco’s traffic violence incidents, tripled the rate of daylighting intersections compared to last year and planned to put in 10 red light cameras at key locations where violations have been known to occur.

Still, The City has been largely unable to decrease the fatality rate, leading Tumlin to call on legislators in Sacramento to “prioritize safety over motorist convenience.”

“As we tamp down speed and bad behavior on one street, it shifts to another street to a certain degree. If we look at global case studies and see what works […], we only have half of the tools that really make a difference available to us,” Tumlin said of speed cameras’ continued illegality in California.

Medeiros from WalkSF says dangerous driving is still “barely enforced” in San Francisco.

“We need to become a city where drivers know that dangerous driving is not tolerated and it’s being activately enforced in every corner of the city, 24 hours a day,” she said. “Widespread red light and speed cameras are absolutely the best way we can send that message.”

Legislative efforts

It’s not that proponents of automated speed enforcement haven’t tried to enact legislation.

Assemblymembers David Chiu (D-San Francisco) and Phil Ting (D-San Francisco) co-authored a bill in 2017 that would have piloted a speed safety camera program in San Jose and San Francisco.

AB342 didn’t even make it out of the Assembly Transportation Committee.

It encountered vocal opposition from groups including the American Civil Liberties Union concerned over possible privacy violations and Teamsters who feared their drivers would get encumbered by citations. Criminal justice advocates worried fines would disproportionately impact communities of color and low-income drivers.

“This is a policy that literally saves lives. I strongly believe this policy is worthwhile, but I’m also intimately familiar with the significant challenges in getting a bill like this past,” said Chiu, who was able to work out compromises with most of the stakeholders who originally were against the proposal.

Ultimately, though, the bill was reportedly torpedoed by the California Highway Patrol. Like some other law enforcement agencies, it viewed the cameras as a side door to cutting officers from the force.

“It was a huge disappointment when the California Highway Patrol Union opposed the automated speed enforcement pilot,” said Brian Wiedenmeier, executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. “I think it represented outdated thinking and policy […].”

When asked about the idea of a pilot program in San Francisco, the CHP told the Examiner it was not its policy to form an opinion on pending legislation.

“That’s not our role. We deal with any bills that end up becoming laws,” a CHP public information officer said.

San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott signed on in support of the bill, and continues to be a “strong and consistent advocate” for a pilot program in San Francisco, according to the police department.

The department added Scott sees automated speed enforcement as a “force multiplier” for police officers, and rejects the argument that it would replace sworn officers or reduce staffing levels.

Panacea?

Often heralded as a potential panacea to eliminating traffic fatalities, speed cameras can also eliminate racial bias, supporters say, because an individual officer no longer has the sole power to issue a ticket.

As cities around the country engage in debates over the future of local police departments, advocates argue these cameras are an easy way to decrease the number of interactions between law enforcement and historically over-policed communities of color.

“While I believe that law enforcement has a huge role to play in fostering better safety outcomes, I don’t think we need to use our skilled law enforcement personnel to sit in a car with a speed gun. That can be automated, and when it’s automated, we can eliminate all potential for bias,” Tumlin said.

But others warn automated speed enforcement carries its own risks to equity.

Many of San Francisco’s high-speed corridors are located within lower-income neighborhoods where larger numbers of people of color reside. Putting too many cameras there could serve as another way to cripple these communities.

“We need to think very thoughtfully and carefully about questions like where those cameras are located, what kinds of fines are being levied with citations and what kind of privacy measures are being put in place with data and images that are collected,” Wiedenmeier said. “Those are all very important questions that need to be wrestled with before we can say automated speed enforcement is the answer to removing racial bias in traffic enforcement.’

Tumlin said it would use the agency’s detailed data about demographics by neighborhood and by corridor to ensure the cameras are distributed in a way that doesn’t place “excessive burden” on racial groups already facing additional barriers.

He also said he supports levvying administrative, not criminal, citations that carry varied fees based on driver income.

Uncertain future of ASE

Chiu said he’s remained in touch with fellow legislators and stakeholders about the possibility of introducing something resembling the now-scuttled AB342, but his campaign has “yet to win the day.”

“There have been a number of bills that have not prevailed because there are many legislators who just haven’t had to grapple with what we have had to grapple with in San Francisco, a skyrocketing number of avoidable tragedies,” he said.

Tumlin, though, thinks the tides might be changing for action in Sacramento given the current confluence of frustration and fear over racial bias in law enforcement and pedestrian safety.

The director told the SFMTA Board Tuesday the agency is “hopeful” there might be an opportunity to move forward in the coming months.

If not, though, advocates suggest The City should take an even broader approach to redesigning the streets of San Francisco to make them safer for anyone traveling by alternate means of transportation.

“Traffic enforcement wouldn’t be necessary if we made it impossible for cars to hit and kill people,” Wiedenmeier said. “That’s a heavy lift, and it’s going to take a lot of leadership and political will. But ultimately it’s more effective and more equitable than enforcement strategies anyway.”

cgraf@sfexaminer.com

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