Photo Enforced Stop Light

Camera Enforcement Questions & Answers

Photo Enforced Stop Light

Photo Credit: Tony Webster [CC BY-SA 4.0]

The ongoing conversation over the role of enforcement in creating safe streets and cities has raised a number of important points, both on and elsewhere.  I believe camera enforcement is a key component in creating safe streets and can be done without sacrificing our commitments to equity, privacy, and safety through better design.  To continue this conversation I’ve put together a Q&A of common concerns for people who may still be wary of supporting enforcement via cameras.

Q: Do red light and speeding cameras remove racial bias?

A: How we choose to use red light and speeding cameras will determine their effect on racial bias. Almost anything, including funding for bike lanes and sidewalks (or for early childhood education, or for parks) can exacerbate racial inequality unless those funds are spent in an equitable way, and the same holds true of red light and speeding cameras.  If we commit to using cameras fairly they can be a tool both to increase safety and to reduce biases in enforcement, but nothing about camera enforcement is inherently biased or inherently reduces racial bias in society.


Q: How do we equitably use speed and red light cameras, given the decades of racist policies that have concentrated poorly designed streets in communities of color?

A: First, we recognize that not providing impartial enforcement in those communities is also inequitable, given that people of color are much more likely to be killed by reckless driving and many people of color do support camera enforcement.

Second, we change the consequences of a traffic violation: instituting income-based fines, providing for escalating fines for repeat offenders, adopting a fine-and-dividend policy that reinvests the money in the community, avoiding creating criminal records for traffic violations, and developing diversion programs for drivers, to name a few ideas.  These policies would prevent fines from forcing already struggling individuals into even more difficult situations, while still increasing safety for everyone.

Third, we work with communities to determine where the cameras will go in their communities. Locating the cameras should be informed by both community knowledge and data on traffic accidents.


Q: Does opposing camera enforcement mean you’re encouraging lawlessness?

A: No, but if we want our streets and cities to be safe for everyone we need a response to the reckless driving behaviors that aren’t curbed by better street design. Red light and speeding cameras are a nondiscriminatory, safe, and provably effective way to reduce speeding and light running.


Q: Isn’t camera enforcement just another version of broken windows policing?

A: No, no more than adding bike lanes is just another version of adding a cloverleaf interchange to the highway system. Camera enforcement doesn’t need to be zero-tolerance and it doesn’t need to result in a criminal record.  Importantly, camera enforcement can replace a huge number of police interactions.


Q: Isn’t it a due process violation to use cameras?

A: No. The government still has the burden of proof to show that the car was driven faster than the speed limit or ran a red light, and will have to prove the validity of the camera evidence in the same way we have to do for radar guns or breathalyzers.


Q: What if the car owner isn’t the one driving the car?

A: If the owner wasn’t driving the car then we can change state law and hold them responsible for lending their car to someone who broke the law, just like we already do for car owners who lend their car to people who don’t yield to emergency vehicles or gun owners who negligently store firearms. The owner can either accept responsibility for having lent their car to someone who broke the law or can provide evidence showing they weren’t the ones driving, allowing us to hold the actual driver responsible.  We don’t need to implement facial recognition technology to identify the car, and the state already collects data regarding car ownership.


Q: Why can’t we just reallocate street funding to fix street designs and avoid using camera enforcement?

A: Even places that have been redesigning their streets for decades, like the Netherlands, still use enforcement as a key component of ensuring their streets are safe for everyone. We have a long way to go before we’d be able to consider eliminating enforcement from the toolkit of interventions for safer streets.  To commit to a design-only policy as a way to build safe communities is to commit us to a strategy that hasn’t been successful yet anywhere.


Q: Won’t cities just use cameras to maximize revenue?

A: We can prevent cameras being used to maximize revenue by paying vendors on a per-camera basis, rather than as a percentage of fines, and by adopting policies like fine-and-dividend. We’ll still need to work to hold elected officials accountable for the policy choices that go into camera enforcement, but that’s true of any policy.


Q: Won’t using camera enforcement mean we’ll stop trying to improve our streets or move away from police enforcement?

A: No. Camera enforcement advocates know that there are lots of situations where enforcement, even impartial enforcement through cameras, is the wrong tool for the job. Switching to camera enforcement does allow us to begin moving away from police enforcement, while relying on police to stop speeders and red light runners obviously does not. On the other hand, making it safer to walk and bike does encourage more people to walk and bike, and those people may become advocates for even better streets. Safer streets can start a virtuous cycle of better, safer cities.

Zachary Wefel

About Zachary Wefel

Former candidate for Minneapolis Ward 1 City Council, lawyer at Wefel Law Firm PLLC, and co-founder of the Minnesota Tool Library. Follow me on Twitter @zacharywefel.