What’s stopping automated speed enforcement?

By Bill Holloway

Blink. I thought I saw a flash of light from a small box on the side of the highway but couldn’t be sure. It was our introduction to France’s automated speed enforcement system. Several weeks after returning from our vacation, we received a traffic citation in the mail from France ordering us to pay a $60 fine for exceeding the posted limit by about 4 mph.

After our initial indignation wore off, I began to marvel at the efficiency of the system. No police officer had to spend her day monitoring the highway, concerns about racial profiling and disparate enforcement could be put to rest, and drivers—at least those from the area—would know that their speeds are being monitored and drive accordingly.

ASE systems have proven effective in U.S. cities as well. A recent case study of Washington, DC’s experience provides strong evidence for the safety benefits of speed enforcement cameras. Since the District first decided to pursue automated speed enforcement in 2001, the results have been dramatic. Between 2003 and 2012, the fraction of drivers exceeding posted speed limits has fallen from 1 in 3 to just 1 in 40. Traffic fatalities have also fallen sharply. While there were 68 traffic deaths in the District in 2003, there were just 19 in 2012. And, public support for the program remains strong—76 percent of residents surveyed in 2013 favored the use of speed cameras.

However, despite the proven safety benefits of ASE and its prevalence internationally, it has been adopted in only 14 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. The other 36 states’ reluctance to implement ASE is normally attributed to public antipathy. But according to researchers at the University of Minnesota, politicians may be misconstruing their constituents’ opinions on the matter. A 2012 survey in Minnesota found that a slight majority of respondents supported the concept of ASE and over 80 percent supported the use of ASE in construction and survey zones.

In an effort to chart a course toward greater use of ASE on Minnesota roads, researchers are developing a blueprint for an ASE pilot program in the state. One of their goals has been to investigate the policy questions that need to be answered prior to implementation of an ASE pilot, including:

  • Who is responsible for the violation—the vehicle owner or the driver?
  • Should penalties be civil or criminal?
  • To what extent should automated warnings be used?
  • How is evidence of an ASE violation authenticated in court hearings?
  • What should law enforcement’s role be in operating the program?
  • How should ASE fine revenue be allocated?
  • What should the goals of an ASE pilot project be?
  • How should the success of an ASE pilot project be measured?
  • What should the penalties be for non-payment of ASE fines?
  • What role should private contractors play in the ASE ticketing process?

Resolving these questions will likely require some contentious tradeoffs. Lead researcher Frank Douma says moving ASE toward implementation will require a consensus among stakeholders that it is a worthwhile tool, as well as committed policymakers who can champion ASE and provide the necessary political and policy momentum. The report, from the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, is currently undergoing final edits.

Bill Holloway is a Transportation Policy Analyst at SSTI.