There is an effective technological solution to crashes creating carnage on our city streets. Yes, I’m talking about speed cameras. Especially during the ongoing COVID crisis, traffic crashes have spiraled out of control, undoing years of progress on reducing injuries on the roads. Minnesota needs legislation to allow cities to bring safety to our streets. It’s time to embrace a commonsense technological fix.
Two of the crises gripping our streets are a long time coming: The epidemic of dangerous driving and often fatal crashes has a linked set of causes that include the COVID pandemic, distracted driving, less vehicle traffic, declining social trust, and larger and more powerful cars. The recent numbers tell the story: serious crashes nationwide have spiked since 2019, rising by 20%. In Minneapolis, fatalities have more than doubled since 2019.
This problem is exacerbated by another problem: the intersection of traffic enforcement, racism, and police violence. The killings of Philando Castile, Daunte Wright, Tyre Nichols and many others all began with traffic stops. One side effect of the fallout is a general reluctance by police to enforce traffic laws. As a result there’s a low-key mayhem on city streets, leaving behind violent crashes and a long list of victims.
The status quo leaves cities in a dilemma, choosing between two bad options: dangerous streets or potentially deadly traffic stops, especially for people of color. There needs to be another way, and luckily there is. Automated camera enforcement is used in cities around the world, and is proven to reduce speeding and death. It’s the kind of technological fix often embraced in other areas of public policy, but for some reason has been anathema to American driving culture.
The story so far
I sometimes ponder what might have happened if Minneapolis had been allowed to continue its 2007 “PhotoCop pilot” project. How many lives might have been saved on city streets? How many serious injuries could have been prevented? If you look at data from places like Maryland, that have used speed cameras for years, the answer is that cameras would have likely saved dozens of lives in Minneapolis alone.
If you’re not familiar with the story, back in 2006, the City of Minneapolis was on the cutting edge of safe streets technology. They installed red light cameras at 12 intersections that had long been prone to dangerous crashes. I remember seeing one at the Third and Franklin avenues, a notoriously dangerous corner, and being amazed that such a thing was possible.
Then the backlash broke out. After 15,000 citations, lawsuits quickly followed. In 2007, the state Supreme Court ruled that the cameras violated state laws which required “uniformity” of traffic law enforcement. Because the camera tickets were mailed to the owner of the car, rather than the driver committing the violation, they were deemed illegal and the PhotoCop program stalled.
A lot has changed in 15 years. For one thing, cameras have vastly improved. They can be used serially to determine average speeds, or they can be programmed to trigger violations after a certain cushion (10 miles per hour over is the most common benchmark). More importantly, 18 states and countless U.S. cities use them every day, creating a track record of how to deploy this technology safely and equitably.
The street safety epidemic
In today’s relatively lawless climate, it’s also helpful that the city of Minneapolis knows exactly where the most dangerous streets are located. Through the Vision Zero program, Minneapolis has reams of crash data, and the most deadly corridors practically jump off the map. They’re almost always arterial roads (often county-owned) lined with shops, apartments, and lots of people: families, children, and elders.
Granted, there’s a solid argument around cameras and equity, where municipal fines can accumulate to harm working-class drivers. But equity flows both ways: Working-class folks and people of color are disproportionately likely to be the victims. Lawmakers should craft a structure that mirrors that of parking tickets, also an urban necessity. Minneapolis should ensure that camera placement is spread evenly around the city, and should introduce graduated fines based on income or severity of the dangerous behavior.
The other criticism, that automated enforcement violates people’s freedom, is bunk. Your freedom ends when it threatens innocent people, and drivers have no right to travel on city streets as fast as they want. I’m rather fond of the New York City approach which installs cameras specifically around schools. Who will defend the reckless blowhard who testifies about his right to speed past an elementary school?
This year, the cities of Minneapolis, St. Cloud, and transportation safety groups are again asking the state government to act. Sometime soon, there will be legislation introduced that might allow Minneapolis to pilot a new camera enforcement policy, in line with its Vision Zero Action Plan. Another bill potentially in the works would introduce cameras specifically in road construction work zones.
In a world where techno fantasy is everywhere, it’s wild that cameras aren’t allowed in Minnesota. Faced with an intractable problem killing and maiming scores of vulnerable people, a technological solution that actually works is just sitting there. Last year, the European Union, where speed cameras are far more common, mandated Intelligent Speed Assist (ISA) technology in all new vehicles. It’s long past time that Minnesota gets caught up and starts saving lives.