Portland's new automated speed cams could herald new approach to traffic safety

PORTLAND TRIBUNE: JAIME VALDEZ - Photo vans, such as this one used by Beaverton police, cost more to operate than automated cameras and don't provide as detailed an image of drivers. Here's the whole Vision Zero debate in a nutshell. Portland has introduced its first automated speed cameras—the latest two weeks ago on Southeast Division Street and Southeast 122nd Avenue. Unlike the city's red light cams, which take a photo of the back license plate of offender's cars, the speed cams take a photo or video of the drivers of speeding cars, who receive their $160 speeding tickets in the mail.

But wait, say officials at American Traffic Solutions (ATS), the country's largest vendor of traffic cam technology. They've studied the videos and discovered that 19 percent of the drivers caught speeding can also be clearly seen holding their cell phones and texting or talking. Seeing as how distracted driving is more dangerous than speeding, why not a second citation for cell phone driving? If we're really interested in eliminating crashes, the ostensible point of the Vision Zero policy, that is. Vision Zero stands for the intended zero traffic violence standard.

Why not indeed, says Rick Gustafson, long-time executive director of Portland Streetcar, Inc. who now teaches traffic management at Portland State University. If the city truly wants to commit to making its streets as safe as possible, Gustafson says, it will expand the use of traffic cameras just about everywhere, and let them enforce as much as they can. Portland currently has 11 red light camera intersections and two of the new automated speed cameras. Make the cameras ubiquitous and people will get the idea that they can't speed and can't rush through red lights.

"I'd cover most of the city and most of the state," Gustafson says.

Dan Saltzman, Portland's traffic commissioner, agrees, to a point. He says he'd like to be able to double cite speeding texters and he'd also like many more traffic cams around the city, if legislators in Salem will tweak the necessary state laws.

"I'm a firm believer that we should be using technology to keep our residents safe," Saltzman says.

The city's Vision Zero plan calls for more traffic enforcement, but concerns over racial profiling during traffic stops have been an obstacle, according to Saltzman, who points out that the profiling problem is greatly solved by technology.

"That is the beauty of cameras," Saltzman says. "They are color blind."

The new speed cams represent a significant change in policy from red light cameras, which Portland has had operating since 2011. Both are intended to keep people safe, and there's a reasonable amount of data showing both do that. But while most people find the notion that driving through a red light without stopping deserves a ticket, not as many are on board with automated tickets for speeders. We all do it, right?

In Washington, D.C., traffic cams not only give tickets to red light runners and speeders; they've also been installed at stop signs to ticket drivers who roll on through or don't wait for pedestrians. The drivers of trucks recorded driving on restricted height streets get caught and ticketed. In San Francisco buses are outfitted with forward facing cams that take photos of cars blocking the dedicated transit traffic lanes and since 2008 over 24,000 citations have been issued. Seattle is working toward putting cams on school buses so drivers who ignore the stop sign arm and pass buses while kids hop on and off will automatically get ticketed.

The move to automated speed cams taking photos of drivers opens up a whole new world of technology use. They're cheap, pay for themselves through the citations they produce, and can compensate for the inability of cities to supply enough traffic police officers to keep people driving safely. Throw in a little facial recognition software and tweak state law, say the experts, and the cams could catch bike riders blowing through stoplights and pedestrians ignoring Don't Walk signals. Our streets could become incredibly safe.

Not so fast, say traffic cam detractors. Jay Beeber, executive director of Safe Streets L.A. just might be the most vocal of those detractors. He consults all around the country to organizations hoping to roll back the clock on cams, and he's seen more than a few successes. Houston shut down its red-light cameras in 2011 and Los Angeles has gutted its once extensive red-light program.

One basic problem with traffic cams, according to Beeber, is they lack the judgment of a traffic officer. "They're enforcing to the absolute letter of the law...If we enforce every law to the absolute letter of the law everybody would be guilty of things all day long," he says.

Most of the citations generated by red light cameras are for drivers failing to fully stop before turning right on red. That's too letter of the law, Beeber says.

"Whether you stop or not is not the problem," he says. "It's whether or not you yield to somebody."

A traffic cop sees someone driving 50 mph in a 45 mph zone and makes a decision based on road traffic conditions and a slew of other factors whether to cite the driver for speeding, which is basically unsafe driving, Beeber says. But the officers sitting in an office reviewing videos from speed cams don't use that discretion, according to Beeber.

"They're sitting there going, 'Technically, did that person break the law?' And yes, they did, and they click a mouse and there's a ticket.

"That's not the kind of society I want to live in, in which everything we do is monitored by the government and every time you step out of line you get a ticket," Beeber says.

COURTESY PORTLAND BUREAU OF TRANSPORTATION - Portland transportation Commissioner Dan Saltzman would like to install speed and intersection cameras citywide, if state laws can be tweaked to make that possible. He's shown here at a press conference with family members of people killed in crashes and others.Gerald Bucher is mostly on board with the new speed cam installed in front of his video business on Southeast Division Street despite the annoying photo light that nearly blinds him every time a speeder is caught. Bucher knows that there have been a number of pedestrians hit trying to cross near his shop.

But Bucher isn't sure the Division Street cams are fair. The pedestrians that get hit are usually among those he sees trying to cross Division's four fast lanes of traffic mid-street.

"The drivers take the brunt of it because the pedestrians are too stupid," Bucher says.

He'd like to see more designated crossings which allow pedestrians to press a button to stop traffic. He'd also like to see the Division Street speed limit pushed back up to 35 mph. It has been lowered to 30.

"That's too slow," he says.

On the other hand, Teresa Hartsock, who lives on Division two blocks down from the new cam, isn't quite as sold on the new technology. That's a surprise, considering Hartsock is pushing a stroller that holds her five-year-old daughter.

"Right after they go past they'll speed up," Hartsock says of drivers slowing down as they approach the new camera, which has warning signs up-road. "So they're going 45 or 60. Late at night you'll hear them really bad."

Would Hartsock support more traffic cam enforcement, say, at stop signs as well? "I don't know," she says. "It's a lot of nanny state. It is sort of creepy knowing there's a lot of cameras and you're always being watched."

People may start to view Portland's new speed cameras with skepticism, says Kent Grayson, coordinator of the Trust Project at Northwestern University. "People feel like if you go through a red light you don't need an umpire to say whether it's a ball or a strike," Grayson says. "On the other hand, the speed limit, in many people's minds, is meant as a suggestion rather than a ball or a strike."

People think in terms of rules and norms, according to Grayson. Rules we have to obey, while with norms we expect a little variation. We may grumble when we learn the person sitting next to us on an airplane paid half what we did for a seat, but we have come to accept surge pricing as a norm. In some things. According to Grayson, when Coke tried vending machines that increased the price of a drink the colder the drink came out, people were totally unwilling to accept the concept. That seemed against the rules.

"We all grow up with a sense of what the rules of the game are," Grayson says. "We know which games have strict rules and which games don't."

So we sort of know that a police officer catching us going five miles an hour over the speed limit in light traffic will probably let us go. But cams don't do that, nor will they overlook a rolling right turn at a stop sign. And that could be a problem.

"The introduction of these cameras changes the rules of the game in a way people feel they're getting a right taken away from them," Grayson says. "In people's minds it's not fair for a camera to be there because I'm used to a system where I'm only caught if the police are present. You're using new technology to change the rules of the game."

Which may be why Jay Beeber has had so much success. By his count, a few years ago there were automated red light cameras in 107 California municipalities and today the count is down to 32.

"People hate these programs," Beeber says. "ATS will tell you they're well accepted and only a few people are disgruntled, but when these things go to the ballot box something like ninety percent of the time they are voted out."

If a city is looking to reduce crashes, the cams are a money saver. In fact, in cities that voted to abolish the cams, the most effective argument has been that they are more about generating revenue than keeping people safe. If they are working well, experts say, drivers adapt, tickets go down and the cams lose their ability to become self-supporting. But there is evidence that they still catch enough speeders to pay their way.

Concerns about privacy are another reason people approach speed cams with skepticism, and with good reason, says Clare Garvie, assistant professor at the Georgetown Law School Center on Privacy and Technology. Given the advent of facial recognition technology, speed cams could become a big tool if private corporations and government agencies such as Homeland Security were to gain access to the footage.

Yes, Garvie says, it's true that we can be tracked already through our cell phones. But we have a choice there. "You can leave your phone at home. You cannot leave your face at home," she says.

Oregon is among a handful of states looking at laws to reign in applications of facial recognition, according to Garvie. She estimates that a quarter of U.S. law enforcement agencies currently make use of such systems.

But maybe all this won't matter a few years down the road, says Trust Project coordinator Grayson. "Driverless cars will be programmed to obey the rules, so all these problems go away quickly," he says.

That is unless the self-driving cars allow drivers to override their operating systems and determine how closely they obey the rules of the road, says Gustafson. Until then, he'd like cams to become ubiquitous, catching speeders, stop sign California rollers, bicyclists who ignore red lights, and possibly more.

"It ought to become more understood that you're going to get caught...It is a feasible way of getting very close to that zero death policy," he says.

PORTLAND TRIBUNE: JAIME VALDEZ - Reserve officer Wayne Dykes plugs in information data on a motorist caught speeding along Southwest Allen Boulevard.

Streetcar goes the extra mile (and money), for safety

Portland officials don't really mean it when they talk about Vision Zero, says Portland transportation consultant Rick Gustafson. If they did, we'd see a lot more automated traffic cameras.

Consider the new Tilikum Crossing bridge, says Gustafson, executive director of Portland Streetcar, Inc. when the bridge was built. He says bridge designers immediately identified a problem. There is a point on the bridge where the streetcar needed to turn left and cross in front of the MAX line, exposing the streetcar to a T-bone-style crash. The most feasible acceptable solution, Gustafson says, was an automated signal that would tell one of the drivers to stop. But the absolutely best solution, and the one streetcar officials chose at an extra cost of about $100,000 per car, is a system that automatically stops the streetcar when it detects a MAX train nearby.

"When you tolerate some deaths you will use the most feasible approach to a safety problem. When you have a zero death policy you will use the best available technology," Gustafson says.

Speed cams slow traffic

Before automatic speed cameras were installed on Southwest Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway, an average 1,417 vehicles a day traveled 51 mph or faster in the 40 mph zone. Immediately after cameras were installed, an average 93 vehicles traveled 51 mph or faster each day. One month after their August, 2016 installation on Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway, speed cams recorded 72 violations a day. By January, 2017, 20 violations a day were being recorded. Most violations result in a $160 ticket. The city's monthly cost for leasing speed cams recording both directions at one site: $6,400 a month — still easily covered by the violation revenue.

Oregon speed-related fatalities

2015: 118

2014: 105

2013: 95

Data: National Highway Safety Administration

Oregon Traffic Crashes

Year - Fatal Crashes - Non-fatal injury crashes

2015 - 410 - 28,647

2014- 312 - 24,208

2013- 292 - 22,984

2012 - 305 - 24,457

Source: Oregon Dept. of Transportation