(Updated at 9:25 p.m.) Enforcement of traffic laws is one of the key pillars to safety on our streets. No matter how well-engineered our streets are to encourage good behavior, if people are able to blow through red lights or exceed a safe speed with their vehicle, our streets will never be safe.
Unfortunately, our current methods of doing traffic enforcement bring their own set of problems. Police forces that are already struggling with staffing levels see traffic enforcement as a low priority making enforcement rare and sporadic, and traffic stops have proven to be the #1 pretext for harassment of black people. Automating enforcement of common traffic violations like speeding, running red lights and running stop signs can both improve safety on our streets for everyone, remove potential bias and reduce unnecessary encounters between residents and armed police officers.
Problems with the Status Quo
Street safety is a major concern in Arlington. A quick look at Arlington’s Vision Zero map (submissions accepted through Friday) shows concerns all around the county, including many concerns about speeding. The old adage, “Speed Kills” is truer than many people realize. Even a small 2mph decrease in average vehicular speed can result in as much as a 34% reduction in fatal crashes.
While local data seems lacking here, nationwide the injuries and fatalities that result from this lack of enforcement fall primarily on low-income and non-white households. Low income pedestrians are 2x as likely to be killed while walking as high income pedestrians. Even adjusting for population, non-white pedestrians in Virginian are 46% more likely to be killed while walking than white pedestrians.
Advantages of Automation
Automated enforcement could provide the kind of constant feedback that is necessary to change behavior. Research on behavior change has shown that feedback must be swift, certain and fair. Our existing enforcement is far from certain, and there are legitimate questions in our community about whether our traffic laws are being enforced fairly. Currently a tiny percentage of speeders, stop sign runners and red light runners get caught. This lack of certainty in enforcement causes it to generally fail to cause behavior change. Automated enforcement could ensure that a much higher percentage of these infractions are caught and issued a fine, leading to fewer people committing these unsafe infractions. Chicago’s DOT, for instance, recently reported that 92.7% of drivers ticketed for speeding in school zones in 2019 didn’t receive a second ticket.
The goal is not to issue tickets. It is to deter unsafe driving. Data shows speed cameras work: In 2019, 92.7% of drivers ticketed for speeding in school zones & 87.2% ticketed for speeding in park zones didn't receive a second ticket, indicating a change in driving behavior.
— CDOT (@ChicagoDOT) October 28, 2020
Automating enforcement would also start removing unnecessary interactions between armed police and citizens. Nationwide, at least, non-white drivers are more likely to be stopped and those who are stopped are more likely to be searched. As we have seen in the news across the nation and even locally, these routine traffic stops can turn fatal.
Features of a Successful Program
Details matter and a successful automated enforcement program would need to get several right.
First, it needs to protect privacy. Arlington’s program should silo data from automatic enforcement equipment so that it can only be used to issue violations. It should not be available to outside parties or to the police for tracking.
Second, it needs to adjust penalties to insure equity. With violations being caught more often, the fine for each individual infraction can likely be reduced while still improving behavior change. The consistency of the enforcement is, to a large extent, more important than the size of the fine. An even better (though more difficult to implement) option might be moving to an income-based fine system like many in Europe which scales traffic tickets based on the annual income of the violator. The primary equity gain of automated enforcement, however, is the reduction of cost in lives and injuries that our low-income and black neighbors disproportionately bear due to traffic deaths and injuries.
Third, there need to be objective criteria established to determine the placement of automated enforcement equipment to ensure that the placement of the equipment doesn’t introduce human bias into the system.
Fourth, we would need to ensure that our automated enforcement is swift. Many automated enforcement programs suffer from long delays between violations occurring and a ticket arriving in the mail. This reduces the program’s effectiveness in changing behavior by separating the act from the feedback by an unnecessary amount of time as well as impairing perceptions of the fairness of the program since multiple violations can occur before any feedback has arrived from the first violation.
Finally, we must recognize that not all traffic enforcement can be automated and work on other approaches to make our enforcement more effective, less biased and less likely to escalate into violence. For instance, Arlington should look at what traffic violations beyond parking violations can be enforced by unarmed civil servants rather than armed officers.
What Would it Take in Arlington?
Red light cameras already exist in Arlington, though the program is much smaller than it could be. Virginia law allows up to 1 camera per 10,000 residents which would allow about 23 cameras. Arlington currently has 9 in operation. (An earlier version of this post erroneously contained a different number of allowed cameras.)
Legislation took effect on July 1 which would allow Arlington to implement speed cameras, but only in school zones and work zones and it only allows violations to be issued if cars are going more than 10mph over the limit. A broader implementation of speed cameras, or issuing violations for less egregious speeding would require further enabling legislation from the State. Automated stop sign enforcement would also require enabling legislation.
The Police Practices Working Group in Arlington is currently seeking feedback on number of areas of interaction between citizens and police, including Traffic Enforcement. Their comment form is open until November 1.
Chris Slatt is the current Chair of the Arlington County Transportation Commission, founder of Sustainable Mobility for Arlington County and a former civic association president. He is a software developer, co-owner of Perfect Pointe Dance Studio, and a father of two.