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California AB 645 Draws Controversy

The California Senate is considering AB 645, legislation which will legalize speed cameras for trial runs in several urban localities in the state. While this legislation has limiting provisions, including ones meant to protect privacy, it has faced criticism from various quarters.

California AB 645’s Attempt to Automate Speed Limit Enforcement

Speed Camera. Credited to autoaccident.com.

California’s AB 645 will allow for a trial run of an automated system to detect vehicles violating the speed limit. The system will “obtain a clear photograph of a vehicle license plate” for local authorities. These systems will be employed in specific jurisdictions. They will be “any of the Cities of Los Angeles, San Jose, Oakland, Glendale, or Long Beach, or the City and County of San Francisco.” This trial period will be until January 1st, 2032.

 These systems can only be employed in official “safety corridors”, streets determined by data to have a certain number of crashes in a given period of time, and school zones during specific periods of the day. The number of systems allowed for a jurisdiction will be further determined by population. They are not allowed on highways or freeways, which fall under the jurisdiction of the California Highway Patrol.

The jurisdictions employing the system must issue “a public information campaign for at least 30 calendar days” before the program begins. They must also only employ “warning notices […] during the first 60 calendar days of enforcement” of speeding laws. The bill also states that a “first violation within a designated jurisdiction for traveling 11 to 15 miles per hour over the posted speed limit shall be a warning notice.” Fines under the system will increase based on speed, with several increments listed.

AB 645 claims that human enforcement has a “disparate impact on communities of color” that could potentially be addressed by this automated approach.

AB 645’s Privacy Protections for California Residents

Walk San Francisco Logo. Credited to walksf.org.

AB 645 does address privacy concerns.

The Speed Safety System Use Policy, mandatory under the bill, serves that purpose. It will regulate what “information can be collected”, who has access to said information, and how that access is controlled. This “shall also include provisions for protecting data from unauthorized access” and so on. This policy is to be publicly available.

Furthermore, the ticket “shall include a clear photograph of the license plate and the rear of the vehicle only”, avoiding other parts of the car. Any records from the system must remain confidential. Any “use of facial recognition technology” is “prohibited” under the bill. The information collected by this program is not to be available to other agencies unless the law requires it.

“[C]onfidential records and evidence” of a violation of the speed limit can only be maintained for a maximum of 60 days “after final disposition of the notice” by the authorities. Other relevant records must be expunged after 120 days. Furthermore, “photographic evidence […] that does not contain evidence of a speeding violation shall be destroyed within five business days” after capture.

Additionally, “the registered owner or […] the driver of the vehicle at the time of the alleged violation” has the right to access the information relevant to the case. The private entities providing the “speed safety systems” are prohibited “from sharing, repurposing, or monetizing collected data” beyond the scope allowed in the legislation.

Authors and Supporter’s of California’s AB 645

Assemblymember Gipson with Walk SF advocates. Credited to walksf.org.

California Assemblymembers Laura Friedman, Miguel Santiago, and Phil Ting introduced AB 645 on February 9th, 2023. It secured considerable support from vested interests, including Walk San Francisco, an advocacy group focused on improving conditions for pedestrians on city streets. This organization has persistently advocated for AB 645 because it advocates for “safe streets”. It claimed to be “an official sponsor” of the legislation. According to their page on the bill, over a thousand people have died in traffic crashes caused by speeding for each of the past five years. Many more people have been injured.

“Speed detection systems dramatically shift behavior and can reduce the number of severe and fatal crashes by as much as 58%,” Walk SF asserted. “AB 645 is a thoughtfully written bill that builds in local community involvement” in order to ensure people are fairly treated.

Walk SF also claimed some credit for Assemblymember Mike Gipson becoming a co-author for the legislation in the Assembly. Examples of victims of car crashes were presented to him during a meeting. The assemblymember was thereby moved to reveal a personal story of losing his son to a similar incident. “Sign me up for this bill,” Walk SF quoted Gipson as saying.

AB 645 was passed by the Assembly on May 31st and is now under consideration by the California Senate. The bill was last “re-referred” to the Committee on Appropriations on July 14th. Senators Scott Wiener and Henry Stern are co-authors.

Disproportionate Impact on Low-Income California Residents

Radar speed sign. Credited to The Mercury News.

Writing for KQED, Sydney Johnson detailed criticism of AB 645 given by Tracy Rosenberg of Oakland Privacy. Rosenberg argued that tickets will be disproportionately issued in lower-income neighborhoods. This is due to those streets often lacking the traffic control infrastructure more affluent areas possess. A University of Illinois Chicago report reinforces this belief in its analysis of speed cameras on Chicago’s streets.

According to the report, minorities in particular received a higher number of tickets per household in Chicago. These individuals were disproportionately affected by the financial burden of paying tickets and fees. They were more likely to be faced by ticket fees, and more likely to accrue additional ones. The report noted that tickets were issued at a higher rate by cameras “located within 350 feet of freeways”, and that these cameras “account for 21%” of those in “majority black neighborhoods.” (A correction was made because of an accuracy issue with regard to the UIC report).

Further Criticisms of AB 645

Rosenberg was also concerned about the privacy of personal information due to the cameras capturing license plates and portions of the vehicles.

“There’s a lot of location data in the hands of the government about where we are, how we travel and how our cars move through space,” Johnson quoted Rosenberg asserting. “And I read every week about a government system getting hacked nowadays. We have concerns about the privacy and security of this data.”

Susan Shelley laid out criticisms of AB 645 in a column for the Orange County Register. In response to the bill’s privacy provisions, she sarcastically writes “[t]hat always works.” This is an acknowledgement of the checkered history of government protection of citizen privacy. She is dubious regarding the “diversion program” option for repeat violators who cannot pay the fines.

Her strongest criticism is her concern that speeding cameras will be revenue generators. Specifically, she is worried about the language supporting funding of “traffic-calming measures” on city streets. Shelley claims that AB 645 will “fund an incremental plan to make driving more and more difficult” for the average Californian.

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