Poor, minorities hurt most by US expansion of traffic cameras
A sign alerts drivers to an upcoming traffic camera at an intersection in Washington in August 2023. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Carey L. Biron
What’s the context?
As officials in Washington and elsewhere seek to expand traffic cameras, critics warn of disproportionate impact on poorer drivers
- Critics worry revenue shortfalls could drive growth
- At least six states have passed recent bills
- Officials increasingly recognize equity implications
WASHINGTON - Efforts to address strained U.S. city budgets, battered by the pandemic and coupled with the end of related federal assistance, are sparking concern over the expansion of speed cameras and other traffic enforcement technologies.
Washington has become key grounds for debate after Mayor Muriel Bowser in March proposed a budget that warned of a nearly $400 million drop in revenue – and suggested adding hundreds of new traffic cameras to the city's streets.
The budget, which was approved in May, prompted warnings over the potential effects of the camera expansion on low-income D.C. residents – and even led to pushback from the U.S. Congress.
Cameras monitoring traffic speed, red lights and bus lanes offer "one of the easiest things for us to turn to and generate revenue quickly," said Priya Sarathy Jones, a D.C. resident and deputy executive director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center, an advocacy group.
Washington's proposed expansion is one of a rising number of such moves across the country, driven by revenue shortfalls, worsening traffic safety and increased focus on how police traffic stops can result in violence, Jones said.
At least six states have recently passed bills expanding the use of automated traffic enforcement, according to tracking by the Fines and Fees Justice Center, while several others have made related proposals.
In a city such as Washington, where the average white household makes three times more money than the average Black household, the flat fees and escalating fines that result from traffic cameras are inherently inequitable, critics warn.
"It means the only difference in terms of who feels the impact is who has the wealth to pay," said Ariel Levinson-Waldman, founding president and director-counsel of Tzedek DC, a legal aid firm.
In Washington, unpaid tickets over $100 automatically bar someone from getting an occupational or small-business license – the subject of a lawsuit Tzedek DC helped bring in June.
One of the plaintiffs is Stephanie Carrington, 49, a speech therapist who lives in Washington but has not been allowed to practice there because she owes more than $5,200 in traffic tickets – half of which she estimates comes from late fines.
"It can really snowball and impact your life and your livelihood," she told Context in emailed comments. "It doesn't feel just or equitable."
The D.C. attorney general's office did not respond to a request for comment.
Increased use of traffic cameras also means increased potential for misuse and "mission creep", said Chad A. Marlow, senior policy counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union.
"Let's say you have concern that people are speeding onto a bridge that leads into a certain community. If you turn the camera so it's always on, now you can track every car that enters that community," he said.
And while data generated by an infraction should be confined to a traffic enforcement agency and deleted after a ticket is resolved, Marlow warned that a city's lack of strict policies could allow that data to be shared widely, including with, for instance, immigration officials.
"A lot of times it's not that the users of these technologies have bad policies – often they have no policies."
'Cycle of debt'
At least 196 U.S. cities, counties and other communities have speed camera programs and 337 have red-light programs, according to the nonprofit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Use of speed cameras has risen 30% in five years, according to the institute, which has found that automated enforcement "can substantially reduce speeding".
Yet studies have also found this varies, sometimes translating to little effect in certain areas – even while the resulting penalties can have outsize impact on certain drivers.
In Chicago, for instance, a study by the University of Illinois last year found that nearly half of low-income drivers were incurring late penalties on automated tickets, often doubling the amount due, compared with just 17% of wealthier ones.
That sets up what Patrick Andriesen, an investigative writer with the Illinois Policy Institute, a think tank, calls a cycle of debt.
The situation was exacerbated in 2021, when then-Mayor Lori Lightfoot lowered the speed threshold for a violation from 10 mph over the limit to just six – more than doubling the revenue that the city took in, Andriesen said.
While Illinois Policy Institute reports find many city intersections appeared to become safer after the installation of cameras, several others became more dangerous, and city officials did not appear to make comprehensive changes based on those findings.
While Lightfoot, who has since lost re-election, did create a program to help low-income residents with automated tickets, participation has been low, and parts of the program have expired, Andriesen said.
"One of the important elements is to weigh the financial impact (on city residents) against the public safety benefits, and be as transparent in the policy as possible," he said.
Representatives for the city did not respond to a request for comment, including on whether the new mayor will seek to tweak the camera program.
There are other ways to attain safer roads and even to structure fees associated with automated violations – in countries such as Norway, for instance, fines resulting from automated traffic cameras are tied to income, said Jones of the Fines and Fees Justice Center.
While that model has yet to catch on in the United States, concerns about equity are receiving rising policymaker recognition.
The federal government this year released traffic camera guidance with a particular focus on how to reduce such concerns related to penalties and site selection – and ensuring that safety and not revenue is the primary aim.
Local officials have also moved to put in place new safeguards – including in Washington, where the mayor in March created a task force to study how to make penalties more equitable, with an initial report due next month.
The city's chief equity officer, Amber Hewitt, and traffic safety official Charlie Willson said that some of the city's "high-injury" streets cut through Black and low-income communities, "in part due to the historical legacies of discriminatory policies like redlining".
Speed cameras have decreased injury-causing crashes by 30%, they added in emailed comments.
Traffic cameras can play an important role in getting drivers to slow down, but they should be a later resort and used temporarily, said Leah Shahum, founder and director of the Vision Zero Network, a nonprofit that helps communities try to eliminate traffic fatalities.
She notes opportunities for changed road design, lowered speeds and even cars that can automatically respond to set road speeds – and says there is rising momentum on each, as well as on recognizing the potentially negative impacts of traffic cameras.
"The traditional roadway safety community has not been as focused on equity impacts in roadway safety work, but that's changing," Shahum said.
"The goal isn't the camera program – the goal is not to need the camera program anymore."
(Reporting by Carey L. Biron, Editing by Zoe Tabary.)
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