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Eyes on the road: Automated speed cameras get a fresh look as traffic deaths mount

Richmond, Va., joins a growing  list of cities that have installed automated enforcement cameras in an effort to cut down on speeding.
Joel Rose/NPR
Richmond, Va., joins a growing list of cities that have installed automated enforcement cameras in an effort to cut down on speeding.

RICHMOND, Va. — The speed limit in front of Linwood Holton Elementary School is 25 miles per hour at drop-off and dismissal.

But Tara FitzPatrick says it's not unusual to see drivers doing twice that. And she has the receipts to prove it.

"So he officially hit the school zone doing 50 miles an hour through a crosswalk," FitzPatrick says, pointing her radar gun at a gray Chevrolet SUV flying by in the left lane.

This is one of two schools in Richmond where the city has installed new enforcement cameras to catch speeders. FitzPatrick has two children at the school. She's also a traffic safety advocate for the nonprofit Greater Richmond Fit4Kids, which is why she owns a radar gun.

Still, FitzPatrick has mixed feelings about the speed cameras. She'd rather see the whole street redesigned to discourage speeding and protect pedestrians and bicyclists. But she also knows that won't happen anytime soon.

Safety advocate Tara FitzPatrick stands next to a new automated speed camera in Richmond, Va.
/ Joel Rose/NPR
Joel Rose/NPR
Safety advocate Tara FitzPatrick stands next to a new automated speed camera in Richmond, Va.

"A lot of us feel desperate" to make streets safer, FitzPatrick said. "If I could make a quick fix tomorrow, it would not be any type of speed enforcement. It would not be school zone speed enforcement cameras. But that's the option that we're left with at this point."

Advocates say speeding tickets change behavior

Richmond joins a growing list of cities turning to speed cameras. New laws in California and Pennsylvania will allow them in major cities where they've long been blocked.

Traffic fatalities have risen sharply over the past decade, and safety advocates around the country are desperately searching for anything that will get drivers to slow down. But critics say speed cameras can be a financial burden on those who are least able to pay.

Still, they've earned the endorsement of prominent safety advocates, including Jonathan Adkins, the CEO of the Governors Highway Safety Association.

"Automated enforcement works," Adkins said. "For lack of a better term, it sucks to get a ticket. It changes your behavior."

Police departments in many places have scaled back their traffic enforcement, Adkins says, and speeding and reckless driving seem to be getting worse. He says automated cameras can help fill that void.

"The question is, how do we deploy them in a fair and equitable way with the public support?" Adkins said. "It can't be a gotcha, it can't be a surprise."

Skeptics say speed cameras are a cash grab

No one likes getting a speeding ticket. But the objections to automated traffic enforcement go deeper than that.

"We are very skeptical that safety is the real goal," says Jay Beeber, with the National Motorists Association, a driver advocacy group.

There are other ways to get drivers to slow down, Beeber argues, including speed feedback signs that show drivers how fast they're going in real time.

"There's many ways to get greater compliance," Beeber says. But many cities are focused on speeding cameras, "because they do not want to lose the money from the tickets they are issuing."

Safety advocates have touted automated enforcement as a neutral alternative to police stops, which can be potentially biased by race, and as a way to reduce unnecessary interactions between police and communities of color.

But in practice, that hasn't always been the case. Studies in Washington, D.C., and Chicagoshow that tickets from automated enforcement are paid disproportionately by people of color.

"Automated enforcement has become a significant revenue driver for the city," said Olatunji Oboi Reed, who runs a nonprofit in Chicago called Equiticity. "And it's financially harmful to Black and brown people."

For decades, Reed says, Chicago has failed to fix some of the most dangerous intersections, or to redesign roads to discourage speeding and encourage biking or public transportation.

"The only solution we get is automated enforcement," Reed says. "That's not a failure of Black people who speed and run red lights. That's a failure of the transportation sector in Chicago."

New laws expand the reach of cameras

Speed camera advocates insist they've learned from those mistakes.

"We need to make sure that our cities have all the tools that are effective that they need to stop the carnage," said Laura Friedman, a state assemblywoman in California who sponsored the state law authorizing automated cameras as part of a pilot program in six cities across the state.

Friedman, who was formerly the mayor of Glendale, Calif., says local communities will be involved in choosing locations for those cameras.

"We make sure it can't be a money grab, because the money can only be used for physical speed-lowering improvements on the same streets where you're using the cameras," she said. "So it's really about changing the culture and slowing traffic down."

Speed cameras have been in use for over a decade in New York City, and safety advocates there say they've worked.

"This is really a model to other cities about how automated enforcement can roll out equitably," said Danny Harris, the executive director of the nonprofit Transportation Alternatives, "because of the way it's rolled out across the city."

The cameras have succeeded in changing drivers' behavior, Harris argues, noting that drivers who get a first ticket are 60% less likely to get a second one.

"It should be very easy," Harris says. "If you don't want a ticket, don't speed."

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Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.