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Workgroup recommends slowing speed camera expansion until equity issues are resolved

Circular logo with text "Our Streets" and an illustration of a crosswalk.

Speed cameras can reduce speeding and collisions while simultaneously bringing in funds to make permanent physical safety improvements to streets. And they can do all this without involving an armed police officer, sidestepping the issue of biased policing. Or at least, that’s how it is supposed to work.

Whose Streets? Our Streets! is “a BIPOC-focused workgroup” that Seattle Neighborhood Greenways convened in 2020 to “use a pro-equity, anti-racist framework to review laws and practices related to transportation in Seattle,” according to the group’s press release (see full text below or in this PDF). They are “asking the City of Seattle to put the brakes on expanding its automated speed camera program until critical equity issues are resolved.”

The problem is that biased policing isn’t the only source of injustice baked into our city. Communities of color are also more likely to live near streets with high rates of speeding dues to a long list of historical injustices such as redlining, segregation and so-called “urban renewal” projects like freeways and their related high-traffic collector roads. At the same time, our city and state departments of transportation have historically neglected to make street safety improvements in communities of color.


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The result is that communities of color are more likely to have streets designed to encourage speeding, such as streets with too many lanes that are too wide. These are the kinds of streets most likely to give out automated speeding tickets, which means that a disproportionate share of speed camera tickets end up going to people of color. It’s a classic example of trying to create a “color-blind” system that actually just reinforces existing inequities. Instead, it will take intention to craft a speed camera policy that is both effective and fair.

Whole Streets? Our Streets! has produced a report documenting the problem and suggesting ideas (PDF). More details from their press release:

Whose Streets? Our Streets! (WSOS), a BIPOC-focused workgroup of community members examining the role of enforcement in transportation, is asking the City of Seattle to put the brakes on expanding its automated speed camera program until critical equity issues are resolved.

A recent SDOT analysis of the program revealed that existing cameras have been placed disproportionately within Seattle’s communities of color, reflecting historic disinvestment in the safe design of roadways that run through those communities. While automated ticketing can reduce speeding and collisions, the cost of a speeding ticket – currently $237 – can also cause significant financial distress for low-income Seattle residents.

Few realize that the number of automated traffic camera tickets issued in Seattle has soared to nearly 200,000 each year. In contrast, Seattle police currently write an average of just 11 tickets per day in traffic stops, about 50 times fewer than are issued by automated cameras. Last year, a budget amendment by outgoing City Councilmember Alex Pedersen directed the city to double down on this mode of traffic enforcement by expanding the number of school zone speed cameras from 35 to 70 in 2023 and 2024. An implementation plan by the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) is due to City Council by July 1, 2023.

Drawing from our BIPOC-focused community outreach and policy research, Whose Streets? Our Streets! is releasing a report with 15 detailed recommendations on how Seattle can balance safety and equity considerations when expanding its automated enforcement program. These recommendations focus on four key areas:

  1. Mitigating the disproportionate impacts of fines and focusing on highest-risk behavior
  2. Creating an equitable citywide distribution of cameras
  3. Developing robust policy to prioritize physical street safety improvements before implementing automated ticketing
  4. Addressing surveillance concerns by documenting, publicizing, and strengthening protections around the use of images and data collected by automated enforcement cameras

We have heard from Seattle residents that doubling down on punitive ticketing is not the right solution for our city’s current traffic safety crisis. On March 14, 2023, WSOS hosted a community town hall centered on automated traffic enforcement. Through small group discussions and a survey, we gathered feedback on how automated ticketing has affected Seattle residents and how the system can be more equitable. Our town hall and a separate online survey were advertised within a South Seattle Emerald op-ed on automated enforcement. In the words of community members who attended the town hall or responded to our surveys:

  • “I was between jobs and had to pay for my medication, and when I got a school zone speeding ticket, I had to choose between paying the ticket or reducing my medication.
  • “We need safer streets all over Seattle but especially in South Seattle where traffic related deaths are highest. But not [with] traffic cameras. That would further punish those communities for poor design. We need to spend our money on better design… of our streets.”
  • “There are speeders everywhere – in Ballard, in Laurelhurst, in Loyal Heights. Why target communities of color? If the city is going to put cameras in, they better be everywhere.”

Learn more about this important issue by reading our new recommendations report: https://www.our-streets.org/s/WSOS-automated-enforcement-summary.pdf.


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18 responses to “Workgroup recommends slowing speed camera expansion until equity issues are resolved”

  1. Gary Yngve

    Simple, put speed cameras in front of every public school. That is equality. At some point with equity arguments, we end up in a contradiction with we cannot have cops, we cannot fine people but expect them to magically be compliant, we cannot snap our fingers and build better infra instantly, we cannot have kids being killed by people driving cars. We need to do something, even if it is not perfect.

    1. Josh

      For school zones, a raised crosswalk doesn’t usually have to cost much more than the installation of a camera. And a properly installed raised crosswalk is self-enforcing 24/7.

      Not necessarily an either/or proposition, of course. Both would be a great idea.

      1. Gary Yngve

        I’m a big fan of raised crosswalks. Frankly the only one I can think of off the top of my head is somewhere where the I-90 trail crosses an arterial? Why aren’t there more?

  2. Josh

    The financial model of camera tickets is all wrong.

    Human-issued tickets rely on large fines to make up for the low probability of enforcement. The penalty is intentionally large enough to be painful from just one ticket. If there’s only one or two cameras around, you’re still not likely to get a ticket unless you always use that one intersection.

    But as cameras spread, they replace that improbability with certainty – drive above the threshold speed, you *will* get cited each time you pass a camera. In that model, you don’t need each ticket to be painfully large, you need the prospect of regularly getting tickets to be a painful *cumulative* expense.

    If I knew I’d pay $10 every single time I broke the speed law, I’d be much more careful than if there’s a 1-in-10,000 chance I’ll pay $500.

    The aim of mechanical enforcement should be that habit of regularly paying attention to speed.

    1. Josh

      Also, the current speed camera legislation has a gaping hole for anyone willing to perjure themselves – just say you weren’t driving, and you don’t have to say who was.

      The Legislature should revise the speed camera violation to be a citation to the registered owner of a car for “allowing unsafe operation” of the vehicle. It’s your inherently dangerous device, you’re responsible for acts committed with it. Think about who you let drive your car, just as you’d think about who you let fire your gun.

      You’d still have an out if it had been taken without your permission, all you’d have to do is submit the police report number for the theft as verification.

      1. Gary Yngve

        Yep, Western Europe has made automatic speed cameras effective at traffic calming. No reason we cannot make it work too. https://road-safety.transport.ec.europa.eu/eu-road-safety-policy/priorities/safe-road-use/safe-speed/archive/speed-cameras_en

      2. Ballard Biker

        If you are the owner of the car that received the automatic ticket, you are responsible for the ticket. If you were not driving the car, you need to name the person driving the car, who will then get the ticket. If they deny it as well, it comes back to you.

        I too thought there was a loophole until a friend got a school zone ticket. In hindsight it seemed way too easy and automatic tickets would be effectively worthless.

    2. RossB

      Agreed. The tickets should start small, and then keep going up. Say, $20, $40, $60, $80, $100, $150, $200, $250, $300, $400, $500. Make it clear that the next ticket is going to be higher. Good cops do this all the time (letting people off with a warning).

      If you have been caught four times and get a ticket for a hundred bucks, I really don’t have much sympathy for you.

    3. Ballard Biker

      Bingo: Speed cameras on front of every school and red light cameras at every major intersection. Equity problem solved.

      Except we can’t because the state legislature is deathly scared of the “War on Cars” brigade.

  3. NickS

    I’m so very disappointed in this incredibly stupid decision to slow walk speed cameras wrapped in some hand waving about equity. I live in SE Seattle, and as with all of District 2, we suffer disproportionately from traffic violence compared with the rest of the city. You walk to talk about equity? How about not subjecting communities to a heavily disproportionate risk that you won’t come home from your walk, ride, or drive and instead will be headed to the hospital or morgue.

    In my block alone we have had multiple speeding vehicles collide with houses, cars, fences, trees, all within the last couple of years. My own house was struck by a speeding SUV that fled the scene. People are driving incredibly unsafely, and they’re doing so because day after day, week after week, they can get away with it. There’s zero traffic enforcement outside of a few speed cameras in school zones.

    No tool is perfect, but an automated speeding ticket is about the closest thing we have to an impartial witness. No one needs to be going 40, 50, 60, or 70 mph in a 25mph zone, whether you live in 98101 or 98118. Start with District 2 and then blanket the rest of the city. As another commenter said, scrap the provision that you can claim not to have been driving, or allow that excuse only once per year per registered vehicle. Consider seizing and/or crushing the vehicle after a 3rd or 4th offense.

    I literally can’t believe this feedback was used as justification for slowing this expansion — “I was between jobs and had to pay for my medication, and when I got a school zone speeding ticket, I had to choose between paying the ticket or reducing my medication.“ Here’s a tip — DON’T SPEED IN A SCHOOL ZONE. YOU COULD HAVE KILLED A CHILD. There’s no excuse, none, and not being able to afford their full medication that month should have taught that person a good lesson rather than whining about how their crappy choices led to being caught and punished. I’m guessing that person didn’t speed in that school zone again. This comment should be trumpeted as a great reason to hasten, not slow, the expansion.

    There are times when the “Seattle process” just enrages me, and this is one of them.

    1. NickS

      Can’t edit, but meant to say, “request” rather than “decision” in the first paragraph, as this is not decided policy. I can only hope Mayor Harrell and SDOT will ignore it.

      In my general area, I hope that Lake Washington Blvd, Seward Park Ave S, Rainier Ave S., Renton Ave S., and Beacon Ave S. as well as east west arterials like Henderson (runs by 3 schools), Othello (bisects the Rainier Valley greenway), and Genesee all get multiple speed cameras. You need to cross or ride on these streets to get anywhere by bike in the Rainier Beach area.

      If you can’t afford a speeding ticket, then don’t speed.

  4. Wondering

    Wrong direction. As someone else said: this problem largely disappears when camera enforcement is ubiquitous.

    Here’s a different framing/question:
    How many people have to die in the name of equity?

    1. Bruce

      Yep, most of this equity stuff is mushy-brained blather. See also the Chinatown/ID station relocation.

  5. Dave

    This is a car-centric “through the windshield” perspective even if it’s a BIPOC through the windshield perspective. Car drivers of all stripes will surely latch onto this faux “equity” argument, make any enforcement impossible for years, and more BIPOC people will likely get injured in traffic as a result. Shame on anyone for delaying unbiased camera enforcement of speed laws in this increasingly dangerous city to be a pedestrian or cyclist. The only equity issue worth talking about is that BIPOC people are more likely to be injured while walking, biking, or going to school. Any properly posted speed camera is a good speed camera.

  6. Dipp Thong

    Yeah, cameras unfairly target POC. LOL. Absolutely brain dead.

    Low income can opt to pay off a ticket by volunteering at an organization. The court has a list of them. All of them are lefty orgs. tho.

  7. Peri Hartman

    While i understand and appreciate the problems with racial profiling, speed cameras have nothing to do with that. As a driver, you have a choice on your own whether to speed or not. it simply doesn’t compare to an officer pulling someone over and cutting them in a biased way.

  8. Al Dimond

    For those road-safety advocates expressing sentiment ranging from … exasperation to disgust … at opposition to speed cameras, I think we can be more reflective than that. Yes, road violence itself is an equity issue and the speed camera program is a measure to try to address it. But that measure is based on enforcement and punishment and the resulting fines do have a disproportionate impact on people living in dangerous areas for the same reasons that the areas are dangerous.

    We can come down on a different side of the issue without dismissing the perspective of people that experience that in a different way. And that’s assuming we really do have significantly different ideas — I think there’d be wide agreement among safety advocates with the notion that speed cameras are at best a narrow, superficial safety measure, and that we need deeper solutions.

  9. Conrad

    I recently got a $240 ticket off a school zone camera for going 29. Painful but I paid it and for damn sure go 20 now. I would think these things work and most parents drive a hell of a lot worse than me. As a parent that worries about their kids getting run over I hope we keep the cameras in school zones.

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