Speeding into the Future: The Pitfalls of Automated Traffic Enforcement

Sandra Bland was pulled over in Texas for failing to use her turn signal while changing lanes and found dead in her jail cell three days later. Walter Scott was shot from behind in South Carolina after he was stopped for a non-functioning brake light. Just this month, 20-year-old Daunte Wright was pulled over for expired license plates and fatally shot as he sat in his car. Traffic enforcement is the leading cause of interactions between the police and the public. On an average day in the U.S., officers make 50,000 traffic stops (stopping roughly 20 million drivers every year). For Black Americans, a seemingly routine stop for a minor traffic violation can have tragic and life-changing consequences.

These encounters are not anomalies, and numerous studies of policing data affirm Black people’s lived experiences of racial bias on the road—or “driving while Black.” For example, researchers at the University of South Carolina reviewed 20 million traffic stops over fourteen years in North Carolina, and found that Black drivers were 63% more likely to be stopped on the road—even though they drove 16% less than white drivers. The same study found that Black drivers were 115% more likely than white drivers to be searched in a traffic stop. Similar results have been borne out in studies conducted across the country, including California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Texas, Washington, and many more.

As public frustration with racist police practices continues to mount nationally, local governments have turned their attention toward reforms that shift nonessential policing responsibilities—like traffic enforcement—away from police departments.[1] In particular, automated traffic enforcement (ATE), in the form of red light cameras and speed cameras, has been hailed as a racially neutral and non-violent alternative to traditional traffic stops that also reduces traffic accidents and fatalities.[2]

There are many reasons to be concerned about the increased risk of speeding for both drivers and pedestrians. Speeding is the leading cause of fatal car crashes in the US: In 2018, close to 9,500 deaths (or 26% of all motor vehicle fatalities) occurred in speed-related crashes. Thirty years after the first speed camera was installed in Arizona, speed cameras are now deployed in over 150 communities across 17 states and the District of Columbia. Advocates for ATE tout the obvious benefits of camera enforcement. First, they argue cameras would reduce, if not eliminate, the racial disparity in traffic stops related to traffic violations. Moreover, without the need for an officer to be present, speed cameras would reduce police contact with historically overpoliced populations—typically low-income and Black and Brown communities—thereby protecting drivers of color from use of force and pretextual searches. Second, speed limits would be enforced with technological consistency—such consistency, in fact, that police could theoretically ticket 100% of traffic violations. For example, in 2013, Washington D.C. issued over 580,000 tickets using automated speed enforcement, compared with roughly 80,000 tickets issued by police officers during the same period. There are also several studies of the effectiveness of automated enforcement generally showing a positive impact on traffic safety outcomes. A 2016 study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) found that drivers in Montgomery County, MD were 62% less likely to speed more than 10 mph over the speed limit on roads with speed cameras.

Despite these findings, the debate over automated traffic enforcement is far from over. In recent years, there has been increasing backlash against ATE, primarily due to public perception of the fines as excessive and revenue-driven. Eighteen states and thirty-six cities have explicitly banned red light and speed cameras. Automated enforcement has also failed at the ballot box; red light and/or speed cameras were voted down in 39 of 43 local elections where the initiative appeared as a referendum.

There are many reasons for the public and local governments to question whether ATE is the best solution for reducing racial disparities and social injustices in traffic law enforcement. Automated speed cameras raise questions about the Constitutionality and racially disparate impact of ATE. Additionally, opponents question whether cameras are truly an effective response for the most egregious types of speeding, which are also the most common cause of speeding-related fatalities. If an intoxicated or reckless driver is speeding dangerously, they are unlikely to be deterred or (or even aware of) the presence of speed cameras. A brief survey of concerns regarding the conceptualization and implementation of automated traffic enforcement are presented here, beginning first with substantive issues and then addressing perverse financial incentive structures.

Substantive Problems


Speed cameras rely on automatic license plate reader (ALPR) technology to identify the cars’ license plates and cross-reference them with DMV records in order to ticket the drivers. ALPR companies capture millions of licenses that pass them by—as many as 1,800 licenses per minute—with potentially grave implications for nation-wide government surveillance. In 2020, the California State Auditor’s office conducted an audit of local law enforcement agencies’ use of ALPR and found that none of the agencies had an ALPR usage and privacy policy that complied with the state’s legally mandated security requirements.

Additionally, there are numerous instances of law enforcement agencies abusing ALPR technology to surveil low-income communities, communities of color and other marginalized groups. We have already begun to see the consequences of this surveillance with respect to undocumented immigrants. In 2019, the ACLU of Northern California revealed that ICE had established a $6.1 million contract with Vigilant Solutions, an ALPR company, to access their database with over 50 billion datapoints from over 80 local law enforcement agencies in over a dozen states. Agencies like ICE can not only search the database, but also upload “hot lists,” or lists of flagged license plates, including individuals with low-level misdemeanors or traffic offenses. If an ALPR identifies their license, it will automatically notify police, allowing them to pin-point the location and travel patterns of non-consenting citizens, as well as undocumented immigrants. In many instances, this sharing of drivers’ data violates both local sanctuary laws and data sharing restrictions.

Technological Errors

While we often rely on our technology, and especially on cameras, to deliver accurate findings, there are numerous instances in which speed cameras have malfunctioned, mistakenly ticketing a car for a moving violation or misidentifying the license plate. Different cities calibrate and maintain their equipment at different intervals to ensure accuracy, and the range is dramatic—as often as weekly (Chicago) and as infrequently as once per year (Washington D.C. and Denver). Without adequate checks in place and systems for redress, there is ample opportunity for innocent drivers to get swept up in ticketing schemes that may continue erroneously for years. A 2014 investigative report by the Chicago Tribune looked at more than 4 million tickets issued since 2007 and found that Chicago red light cameras incorrectly ticketed thousands of drivers over a seven-year period due to a technological malfunction that was not detected until the Tribune’s investigation.

Due Process

ATE raises a significant Constitutional concern in that photo enforcement undermines the Fifth Amendment’s presumption of innocence by impermissibly shifting the burden of proof from the state to the ticketed car owner. Once a driver is recorded speeding by automated speed cameras, the speeding ticket is sent to the registered owner of the car, who may not have been driving the car at that time. At this point, the burden falls on the driver to prove that they were not driving the car at the time of the violation, which can be incredibly difficult to show. Traffic cameras are generally aimed at the rear of the car to capture its license plate and often do not record the driver’s face with sufficient detail for a positive identification. The difficulty of shouldering the burden of proof and preserving evidence is further exacerbated when drivers do not receive their tickets until days, or sometimes weeks, after the violation occurred. In Tupper v. City of St. Louis (2015), the Missouri Supreme Court struck down the city’s red light program for these very reasons.

Perverse Financial Incentive Structures

In addition to concerns about due process and privacy, automated traffic enforcement creates perverse incentives for local governments and private companies to extract vast amounts of wealth from the public—and particularly from low-income drivers and communities of color who are most impacted by traffic enforcement and least able to afford traffic fines and fees.

Extractive Municipal Budgeting

In recent years, fines and fees have come to make up a growing proportion of municipal budgets. A 2019 report by Governing magazine found that in nearly 600 U.S. jurisdictions, fines make up more than 10% of general fund revenues. For example, in Chicago’s first week of speed camera enforcement, over 50,000 warning notices were sent out to residents who had been captured driving six to ten miles per hour over the posted speed limit. Extrapolating this number over a full year, the city may issue over 2.7 million speeding tickets in its first year of implementation, and stands to raise $95.5 million in revenue through $35 tickets alone (Motorists driving over 10 mph in excess of the speed limit are fined $100). As cities come to rely on traffic fines and fees as a key revenue source, they are perversely incentivized to expand the breadth and strictness of ATE, rather than utilize traffic safety best practices to guide their policies.

Privatization of Law Enforcement

ATE isn’t just lining municipalities’ pockets. Most cities contract with third-party vendors to install and administer traffic cameras, often creating payment structures that lead to over-enforcement of traffic laws. Municipalities pay little to nothing to these private entities for their services. Instead, vendors take a percentage of every ticket issued (in some cases as much as 50%), thereby incentivizing companies to maximize the number of tickets issued where possible. As part of their contracts, private vendors can also dictate certain traffic regulations (e.g., yellow light duration) and even penalize cities for waiving too many citations. This privatization of traffic enforcement prioritizes profits over public safety, and ultimately undermines the public’s trust in government.

Disparate Impact of ATE

Finally, automatic speed cameras are often deployed in ways that disproportionately affect low-income communities and communities of color—the very communities that ATE is supposedly adopted to protect. High-speed corridors are rarely located in suburban, white neighborhoods, but rather in dense, lower-income neighborhoods with high proportions of people of color. A report by the D.C. Policy Center analyzed the impact of speed cameras by the degree of segregation across census tracts. The researchers found that drivers in predominantly Black-segregated neighborhoods received 2.82 traffic tickets per capita. This is twice the city’s average of 1.24 tickets and 17 times the average number of tickets received by drivers in white-segregated neighborhoods. This statistic holds true even though the number of crashes per capita was essentially the same between predominantly Black and white neighborhoods.

The burden of traffic fines and fees weighs disproportionately on low-income communities. For example, the base fine for speeding in California is $35. But this quickly balloons to over $230 with administrative fees and even more if the driver misses their initial court appearance or is unable to pay the ticket in full. These fines are untenable for many low-income families, and their inability to pay can lead to dire consequences, including license suspensions, predatory debt collection, arrest, and even imprisonment. Some jurisdictions have instituted ability-to-pay structures, however even where ability-to-pay is in place, many drivers are not aware of its existence, do not understand how to apply for it, or are stymied by complex bureaucratic processes.

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As local governments respond to increasing public demand to “defund the police,” automated traffic enforcement presents an appealing and financially profitable alternative. There are strong special interests that would welcome the change: the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) and National Safety Council are currently lobbying Congress to raise the ban on federal funds to subsidize private, for-profit photo radar vendors. This could release a significant windfall in federal monies to support the expansion of speed camera programs. Yet there are a number of alternatives to ATE that have proven to be equally effective, including municipal investment in urban design and traffic calming infrastructure, like roundabouts and medians; an agency of unarmed civil servants executing traffic stops; intelligent in-vehicle speed assistance systems; or even simply lowering speed limits. If racial equity and social justice are truly a driving motivation for cities considering ATE, then local governments must consider the full extent of ATE’s impact on low-income, Black and Brown, and undocumented communities.

[1] For a discussion of police alternatives in crisis intervention, see “We Take Care of Us!”: The Genesis of Non-Police Alternatives for Crisis Intervention, by Cameron Bird (UC Berkeley Law, ’23).

[2] This article primarily addresses speed cameras, however many of the issues raised by the use of red-light cameras and other types of photo law enforcement are similar, if not identical.