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S.F. Vision: Catch Speeders on Camera, But There’s a Catch

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San Francisco’s streets, already home to cameras that spit out tickets to drivers who run red lights and park in Muni zones, will also be dotted with devices to catch speeders, if city leaders have their way.

The idea of employing radar beams and cameras to snag speeding motorists may seem to some like a further intrusion of technology into everyday life or an example of an expanding police state — while still others don’t have a problem with “careful” speeding. But traffic safety, pedestrian and bicycling advocates say it’s the most effective way to slow cars and trucks, change a city’s traffic culture and make the streets safer for everyone.

As San Francisco works on its Vision Zero goal of eliminating traffic collisions causing death or serious injury by 2024, Mayor Ed Lee and city transportation officials are eyeing the speed cameras.


Considered to be among the most dangerous intersections in San Francisco, a chaotic mix of cars, trollies, cyclists and pedestrians come together on Market Street between Octavia and Valencia Streets on Friday May 29, 2015 in San Francisco, Calif. The city of San Francisco is considering installing speed cameras at dangerous intersections and also near schools and senior centers.

Automated speed enforcement, as it’s also called, uses devices with radar and license-plate cameras and can be installed at fixed locations or mounted in vans deployed as mobile units. Two radar beams independently calculate speeds of passing vehicles, and if the radars agree the speed is excessive, trigger a camera that snaps license plate photos. Those are used to mail citations to offending drivers.

Trying to change to law

Red-light cameras may be common in California, and bus-mounted cameras that capture photos of drivers blocking bus stops are permitted in San Francisco, but state law does not permit the use of speed cameras.

That’s not slowing down San Francisco officials, who plan to seek sponsors late this year or early next year for legislation to allow San Francisco to start using the devices.

“It tackles the No. 1 killer on our streets, which is reckless, excessive speed,” said Noah Budnick, executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. “That’s what’s killing San Franciscans on the streets more than anything else.”

While speed cameras aren’t used here, they’re commonplace elsewhere, including some large U.S. cities such as New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Portland, Ore., and Seattle. Reports from those locales, and a 2010 study from Cochrane, an independent group that reviews existing health care research, found that cameras have been effective.



A traffic camera installed to nail red light runners is operational in front of the Moscone Convention Center at Fourth and Howard streets in San Francisco, Calif. on Thursday, May 28, 2015. Mayor Ed Lee is pushing a plan to activate traffic additional cameras which would capture photographs of drivers that exceed the speed limit in certain areas throughout the city.

“Speed cameras are a worthwhile intervention for reducing the number of road traffic injuries and deaths,” concludes the review, which looked at 35 studies from around the world.

Cities with speed cameras report that they reduce overall speeds, the percentage of speeding vehicles and, over time, the number of speeding tickets issued.

Washington has seen a 14 percent decline in average speeds and an 82 percent drop in the number of speeding vehicles. Scottsdale, Ariz., found a 10 percent reduction in average speed. Portland experienced a 30 percent decline in speeding vehicles.

As part of its Vision Zero plan, New York City uses several traffic measures to slow drivers down and began using speed cameras in January 2014. In their first year, the city had its fewest pedestrian deaths since 1910, and overall traffic deaths were second lowest since 2010.

“It’s a very huge part of the Vision Zero strategy,” said Juan Martinez, director of strategic initiatives for the New York City Department of Transportation. “The real goal here is making sure people are watching their speedometers, because we know that speed kills. Having that predictable and consistent enforcement makes people abide by the speed limit.”

Speeding is 10 times more likely than driving under the influence to lead to a fatal or injury accident involving a pedestrian, said Nicole Ferrara, executive director of Walk San Francisco, an advocacy group for pedestrians.

“We live in a culture where we don’t think anything about speeding 10 mph over speed limit when that 10 mph can be the difference between life and death,” she said.

‘Always in a hurry’

On South of Market street corners, where speeding drivers can make a pedestrian feel like an endangered species, the proposed cameras sounded like a great idea to many.

“These drivers, they don’t know where they’re going, but they’re always in a hurry to get there,” said Sandra Marques, a nanny for SoMa Day Care who was pushing a four-seat stroller with four toddlers in it across Fourth Street at Howard. At that corner, she said, speeders are commonplace and a speed camera would be “very welcome.”

Her fellow nanny, Ngoc Luong, says she never crosses a street before approaching cars have stopped — and nanny and driver have taken note of each other.

“It’s not enough for them to stop,” she said. “You have to make eye contact. That’s important. Everybody is going fast, and they don’t always yield to pedestrians.”

In front of the InterContinental San Francisco hotel, waiting cabdriver Safu Zewedi also thought speed cameras were OK, as long as they apply equally to Uber drivers, who are already making things tough on cabbies.

“It should apply to everyone,” he said. “You see careless drivers every day in San Francisco. Speed is why a lot of accidents happen.”

But fellow cabbie John Tran said making a living in a taxi is tough enough — and downtown traffic is slow enough — already. He said a little careful speeding — maybe 40 mph in a 25 mph zone — was OK. The red light cameras are OK, he said, but speed cameras are unnecessary.

“Going fast is safe if you know what you’re doing,” he said. “People drive too slow in San Francisco. You should be able to go faster if the street is wide open. Time is money, and we don’t make enough.”

New York City chose to adopt speed cameras because other tools for slowing down drivers — like speed bumps or narrowing streets — weren’t appropriate for high-capacity streets, Martinez said. But even with the backing of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, it took more than a decade to persuade state lawmakers to allow the cameras in New York City. It’s a battle that’s likely here as well.

Martinez said that many legislators from outside New York City associated speeding with freeways and wide-open rural roads, and didn’t see it as a problem. Some doubted it posed a problem on congested city streets where traffic often crawls. Others figured it was just a money-making ploy.

While speed cameras are still relative newcomers in New York, they’ve been successful and convinced some skeptics of their worth, Martinez said. The majority of the city’s 140 cameras are permanently installed, and at those sites, the number of speeding citations has decreased by 60 percent. That backs up supporters’ contention that the purpose of speed cameras is not to cash in on a lot of tickets but to serve as a deterrent to speeding.

“We’ve had good success,” he said.

Limited testing sought

San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency officials have done considerable research into speed cameras. They intend to ask the Legislature for permission to do a limited test of the cameras, focusing on areas near schools and senior centers. Several cities with speed cameras, including New York, restrict their use to similar sites.

“Speed cameras reduce speed, which reduces the number of fatalities and injuries for people who walk,” said Paul Rose, an agency spokesman. “Especially for vulnerable populations like children and seniors.”

Budnick said speed cameras will benefit everyone in the city by slowing things down and, he hopes, reducing the numbers of people injured in crashes.

“In a dense city rich with humans, with people walking around, biking around, speed is important,” he said. “Because, in a collision between a bike rider or a pedestrian, and a car, the pedestrian or bicyclists is always going to lose.”


Courtesy : Michael Cabanatuan and Steve Rubenstein

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