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Season 2

Feburary 2024 - Episode 6

Unmasking the Bias: The Trouble with Automated Traffic Enforcement

Automated Traffic Enforcement, or ATE, refers to a variety of tools that are used to enforce traffic laws through technology. You usually see them as red light cameras, and speed cameras. But there are also license plate readers, bus lane enforcement cameras, and many more examples.

ATE is spreading across the country very fast. There are situations where ATE can reduce speeding, and theoretically it reduces contact between police officers and Black and Brown drivers for traffic stops. But, some believe that ATE can be used to perpetuate discrimination, racism, and abuses of power rather than support equity.

We spoke to Priya Sarathy Jones, Deputy Executive Director at the Fines and Fees Justice Center. You can read their report, “Caution: We’re Driving the Wrong Way on Automated Traffic Enforcement.”

Priya Sarathy Jones:
People get scared when they feel like they may get hurt. When they feel they are in danger, the go-to response is enforcement. And I don’t think that anything is different when it comes to traffic enforcement and a gut hole towards more enforcement. And the truth of the matter is, is all a camera does is catch someone after the theft, right? They’ve already done the thing when they get the ticket. And if your camera is issuing millions of citations, hundreds of thousands of citations every year, that means people have already done the thing and you’re not stopping them from doing it.

Charles Brown:
Automated traffic enforcement, or ATE, refers to a variety of tools that are used to enforce traffic laws through technology. You usually see them as red light cameras and speed cameras, but there are also license plate readers, bus lane enforcement cameras, and many more examples.

In December 2023, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill that permits speed cameras in the state for the first time after a half dozen previous attempts to pass this legislation. ATE is spreading across the country very fast. But in my opinion, we have not done enough to consider the consequences of this technology. There are situations where ATE can reduce speeding. And theoretically, it reduces contact between police officers and Black and brown drivers for traffic stops. But it is my opinion that ATE can be used to perpetuate discrimination, racism, and abuses of power rather than support equity.

My name is Charles T. Brown and this is Arrested Mobility. My guest today is Priya Sarathy Jones from the Fines and Fees Justice Center. Her organization just released a report on the dark side of ATE entitled Caution: We’re Driving the Wrong Way on Automated Traffic Enforcement. You’ll be able to find it linked in our show notes. For now, Priya explains some of the harms that come with ATE.

Priya Sarathy Jones:
My name is Priya Sarathy Jones. I live in Washington, DC. My pronouns are she/hers. And my title is the deputy executive director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center. What we know about automated traffic enforcement is that every single place these tools are used, whether it be licensed plate readers and speed cameras or red light cameras, is that they’re issuing citations. And those citations come with fines. At a minimum, fines. Fines and fees a lot of times. And so if that is going to be the process in which citations are issued, jurisdictions and communities really need to grapple with what that means before just rolling it out everywhere, expanding our programs, accepting the technology on face value to achieve our particular objectives policy wise and acknowledging and dressing that they do come with harm. So this is not a harm-free technology.

Right now, DC and Chicago are two of the most prolific users of this type of technology. They’re also the two jurisdictions that had a great deal of research interest around their programs. They also have really interesting racial components of their city’s makeup and socioeconomic components of their city’s makeup. Research has found that drivers in DC’s predominantly Black areas are over 17 times more likely to receive violations and at a cost of 16 times more per resident. And so we are able to actually see who’s getting these tickets in what neighborhoods, what is the socioeconomics of that. And it’s painting a picture that the income inequalities, the racial disparities, is also translating into who’s receiving and getting these tickets.

Chicago is another city that has a really, really expansive camera program that has had a lot of analysis done on it. And the analysis in the Chicago program found that the highest share of camera tickets issued in a four-year time span, about 38% of those tickets during that period went to motorists and majority Black zip codes. So it’s telling us that the majority Black zip codes are getting these tickets. The majority of Black areas of the city in DC are getting and generating these tickets. And then when you overlap census’s and economic data over that, it is also painting us a picture about the financial circumstances of the people who are living in those neighborhoods.

The truth is, when you think about it, in DC if you get one camera ticket here, the minimum amount that camera ticket is going to be is $100. If you don’t pay in 30 days, it becomes $200. And we know what the socioeconomics looks like in the city. And $200 or $100 is nothing to a lot of people who live inside of this city. And it is everything to others in this city. We know from federal studies that most Americans are unable to respond to a $400 emergency. They are living paycheck to paycheck, and this is a pre COVID survey.

Charles Brown:
Automated traffic enforcement tools are usually owned and operated by private companies. These companies take out contracts with cities and jurisdictions who then make substantial revenue from ticketing drivers. Some of these contracts contain questionable policies designed to maximize profit rather than public safety. For example, several cities have been caught shortening the timing for yellow traffic lights, which means it’s more likely for drivers to be caught going through a red traffic light.

Priya Sarathy Jones:
A lot of proponents argue for automated traffic enforcement as a street safety tool, but we realize now that even if that is what may precipitate this type of technology coming to the scene, the reason that it stays on the scene and stays as harmful and ineffective towards public safety goals as it is because it generates a great deal of revenue for cities.

We’ve recently seen this in Washington, DC where in order to fill the budget gap, the mayor has moved the revenue of automated traffic enforcement to the general funds in order to fill this budget gap and simultaneously is expanding the use of the technology. And through budgeting processes, all of this money is accounted for and planned for in the budgeting and fiscal process. And when you do that, the money becomes institutionalized and relied on by governments in order to operate all or some of their essential functions. And when that happens, untangling those things becomes harder and harder because it’s no longer about public safety, it’s about money.

Charles Brown:
I want to acknowledge that there’s a fair argument to be made about how ATE can reduce physical police violence towards Black and brown drivers when the only means of traffic enforcement is through police pulling drivers over, we have situations like Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, Tyre Nichols, and countless others who died after being stopped from minor traffic violations. But it’s not enough to simply replace police with cameras. An automated system of fines and fees creates a host of new problems for our Black and brown communities.

Priya Sarathy Jones:
Cameras only, they’re not detecting a DUI. They’re not detecting someone who is under the influence. What they detect is, did you roll through a stop sign? Did you come to a complete stop? Are you going X amount miles per hour over the posted speed limit? That X amount could be six miles per hour over the speed limit, or it could be 100 miles per hour over the speed limit, right? That’s what it’s detecting. And it’s just reporting that. It is not stopping that driver from doing that.

Here’s also the other kind of conundrum, which is, we know that traffic stops or the most common way that Americans interact with the criminal justice system. It’s through traffic stop. There’s over 20 million of them a year. And we also know that that is more likely to result in violence or even death in Black drivers who are stopped. And so there is a real policy reason to examine physical traffic stops with armed officers for the benefit of all involved. Real conversations, real solutions, real examination, and a real acknowledgement that the traffic stop is often not used for the purposes of traffic, but for the purposes of a pretextual stop to look and examine suspicious individuals to the officer for more than just the traffic stop.

And so a camera can seem like a tool to take that part of the equation away and just skip the citation. But like I said, the issue with that is that it’s capturing a moment in time with a piece of information. And due process really comes into play when you get a traffic ticket, you’re pulled over, you’re issued a court date, you can go and appeal the ticket, right? There’s a whole adjudication process that’s attached to it that you could go through in theory. When you get a camera ticket, the appeals process, you were just given this citation. It says that it’s catching a moment of time with no other context involved, right? That’s the part I think that gives people a lot of pause, is that you can initiate a lot of consequences sometimes not against a driver, but the owner of the vehicle regardless of the driver, because that’s the information you have. You don’t actually have the information of the driver. You have the information of the vehicle and who owns the vehicle, which may not have been the driver. Whereas you’re physically stopped, you know who the driver is.

Charles Brown:
Now, we don’t want to reduce this to just a political argument. On both sides of the aisle, Americans are concerned that our individual rights and freedoms have been violated by constant monitoring and surveillance.

Priya Sarathy Jones:
There’s a lot of conversation going on around who administers these actual ATE programs across the country. Should it be the Department of Transportation or the police department, right? Two very separate goals of these types of organizations. So we’re seeing more of a push for the Department of Transportation to be the holder of this technology and the implementation, and where restrictions on how the data and recordings and surveillance from that can be accessed, who can access it, who can use it.

And there were even places, I believe, like Washington, where they had really specific guidelines on what the technology and use could be for. And they had an incident that was captured through this technology and wasn’t able to be accessed for the purposes of what the underlying incident was. I think that prompted a push towards expanding the use of the technology into, yes, we have a camera that’s for this purpose, but also if you happen to catch someone carjacking, if you happen to catch someone with these cameras being somewhere they’re not supposed to be, we can use it for all of those things. And that just opens Pandora’s box in all honesty about a surveillance state of what you can do with these cameras and how these cameras can be upgraded from their purpose to very, very advanced technologies that can capture whereabouts and people very easily over time.

We can imagine a world one day where the intentions around that and the way it’s used are not positive. It’s not that farfetched to get there. And I think that that’s what people are concerned about. And those are real conversations that are on the table that are being had. People are asking really great questions that deserve answers. I think that that is actually what this whole thing is, is we are using technology to cement a broken system. And when you do that, you’re not improving a system. You’re just making that poor, broken system more efficient, more harmful, and more problematic. I think when you do that, you have to really question what is the value of the technology itself.

Charles Brown:
People believe that technology can be a cure for racial discrimination. The reality is that technology by itself can be a neutral and useful tool, but its development, deployment and use are influenced by human decisions and biases. Let’s be cautious about relying on automated traffic enforcement as we try to make our roads safer. You don’t solve the of structural racism and discrimination in traffic safety by simply replacing one form of biased enforcement with another. The institutions that control physical enforcement are still in control of electronic enforcement. That means the populations who have historically born the brunt of this enforcement may continue to receive it unjustly.

If we are to move towards alternative solutions to reduce the chances of physical violence and over-policing of Black and brown communities, then we need more community oversight and input into how these systems are deployed. As the saying goes, those closest to the problem are closest to the solution. No movement ever for social justice has succeeded without the full participation and leadership of those affected. I want to thank my guests, Priya Sarathy Jones, thank you for your expertise and your time.

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This podcast is a production of Equitable Cities with support from Puddle Creative.