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Adding Speed Cameras to CA Cities Won’t Target People of Color. It’ll Protect Them.



A proposed pilot program to install speed cameras in six California cities aims to reduce pedestrian accidents, particularly in communities of color. (CalMatters/Mark Leong)
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In Summary

A proposed pilot program to reduce pedestrian accidents in six California cities is receiving pushback because critics believe installing speed cameras would unfairly target low-income communities. A proponent of the bill argues that the disparities in traffic safety is the more urgent issue.

Darnell Grisby
Special to CalMatters

If drivers seem more aggressive today than just a few years ago, well, they are. Pedestrian deaths are at their highest level in 41 years. Our streets are getting more dangerous, and lower-income neighborhoods and communities of color are disproportionately impacted.

Over the last decade, cities across California have adopted comprehensive “vision zero” plans, meant to lower traffic deaths to zero. Local and state governments are implementing road redesigns, lowering speed limits and launching education efforts. But sadly, a recent study by the Governors Highway Safety Association found that pedestrian deaths increased by a staggering 77% from 2010 to 2021.

Meanwhile, communities of color bear the brunt of the pain from the increase in lawlessness on our roads. In fact, in California, Black pedestrians are 62% more likely to die than white Californians. Latinos are 31% more likely.

The truth is that we need enforcement to make our streets safer – not just to cite people who break the law, but to serve as a deterrence and reminder for everyone in our communities to follow our laws.

As a Black man who has worked at the intersection of transportation and social justice for years, I know firsthand that calls for enforcement are complicated. High-profile police brutality cases stemming from traffic stops that spread on social media are not only a tragedy, but a reminder of the disparate impact and fear Black and brown drivers experience every day. Advocates and policymakers have been wrestling with this challenge by reducing or even eliminating traffic enforcement from their police departments.

But eliminating enforcement meant to protect the rights of our low-income neighbors and communities of color is not answering the call to make our streets safer from traffic collisions. Additionally, as noted in a USC study earlier this year, the placement of freeways in Los Angeles has forced commuters from mostly white areas to drive through majority nonwhite neighborhoods, rather than the inverse. Clearly, we cannot make assumptions about who is harmed by enforcement actions when most drivers are using the same roads.

I think most people can agree that there must be consequences to prevent speeding. Assembly Bill 645 would implement a five-year speed safety pilot program in Los Angeles, San Jose, Oakland, Glendale, Long Beach and San Francisco. Authored by Democratic Assemblymember Laura Friedman of Burbank, the program would enable these six cities to install speed cameras that would capture images of cars traveling more than the speed limit and send speeding tickets to the registered driver’s home.

This legislation could make a real difference for vulnerable people dying on our streets. Recently, a baby died after a driver struck her mother, sister and the infant at a busy San Jose intersection. A neighbor told the local news that they sometimes see people driving 85 mph in the 35-mph zone.

Under this proposal, San Jose could have a speed camera issuing tickets in that corridor to help avoid another tragedy.

Some opponents have tried to frame speed cameras as harmful to low-income communities because they will bear the brunt of the tickets issued. But California’s low-income communities are already experiencing the cost of dangerous streets in hospital and funeral bills. They are paying the most and have the least freedom to safely use neighborhood streets.

Critics have also claimed that the cameras can be used for racial profiling. But the law prevents cameras from capturing faces.

Others say that neighborhood safety improvements will lead to gentrification. This is the worst argument of all, as it follows a shortsighted and destructive trend of using racial equity claims to block better housing, new transit, or in this case, safer streets in the fear that existing residents will get priced out.

Instead, the right approach is to improve neighborhoods, while supporting an ownership society that promotes financial justice for all Californians.

Everyone in our state deserves to feel safe on our streets. They deserve to know that their grandparents and children will not become a victim of a speeding driver that expects no consequences. There is no single solution to make our streets safer, but there are tools we can use to make our communities safer. Speed cameras are one of them.

About the Author

Darnell Grisby is the senior vice president at Beneficial State Foundation and serves on the California Transportation Commission.

About CalMatters

CalMatters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan newsroom committed to explaining California policy and politics.

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