The need for speed … cameras: Part One

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Elected officials and proponets of AB 1297 gather in Sacramento. From left are Garrett Holley, legislative aide to Senator Ben Allen; Marc Vukcevich, Director of State Policy, Streets for All; Damian Kevitt, Executive Director, Streets are for Everyone; Steve McClary, City Manager, City of Malibu; Bridget Thompson; Michel Shane; Rusty Aerias, California Strategies & Advocacy, LLC; Alexis Brown, Deputy City Manager, City of Malibu; Senator Ben Allen, 24th District; and Doug Stewart, Mayor Pro Tem, City of Malibu. Contributed Photo

Automated traffic enforcement works for small-town Iowa, but will it work for Malibu?

By Ben Marcus

On June 18, the City of Malibu was pleased to announce the passage of Senate Bill 1297 (SB 1297), which authorizes the use of speed camera systems in designated areas of Malibu, “strategically placed in five high-risk areas along Malibu’s21-mile stretch, where speeding poses a serious threat to public safety.”

High time, but now the questions are: When will the cameras be installed? Which areas of Malibu should be designatedfor speed cameras? How much will the fines be? And, how will that revenue be dispersed?

While writing a feature on speed cameras that included the tragic accident that took the lives of four Pepperdine students, I went online to compile facts and figures about the dollars and cents, legalities and liabilities, costs and benefits, and other factoids relating to speed on Pacific Coast Highway, and the use of speed cameras across country and around the world.

One group of numbers I found had to do with the use of Automated Traffic Enforcement (ATE) in Marion, Iowa — a town of about 46,000 souls equidistant from Hiawatha and Cedar Rapids. Two permanent speed cameras and one mobile system had been approved by the Marion City Council in April of 2023, and they went into operation in September of2023.

After one month of unblinking traffic enforcement, the Marion numbers looked like this:

$0: Cost to the City of Marion to install speed cameras. The cameras are installed by a Swedish company — Sensys Gato — who take a cut of the citation revenue.

1: Mobile camera, used where needed, with the public alerted.

2: Red light/speed cameras at the intersection of state highways and local roads.

$50: Fine for 5 to 10 mph over speed limit

$75: Fine for 11 to 20 mph over speed limit

$100: Fine for 21 to 25 mph over speed limit

$250: Fine for 26 to 30 mph over speed limit

$500: Fine for 31 mph or more over speed limit

$100: Fine for running a red light

120: Repeat violators in one month.

15: Three-time violators in one month

4: Four-time violators in one month.

1: Person received six violations within a month

86 MPH: Fastest speed recorded in a 55 mph zone.

538: Citations for excess speed from two stationary cameras

1,142: Citations for running red lights from two stationary cameras

1,680: Citations for red lights/speeding issued in Marion, Iowa, from September to October 2023.

$141,100: Minimum revenue from two fixed speed/red light cameras for one month — (1,142 x $100) + (538 x $50) — but probably a lot more.

“Righteous bucks!” in the words of Jeff Spicoli, but what seems to be working for the small town Marion, Iowa — could it work for the small town of Malibu?

Like Malibu, Marion had a problem with high-speed driving, according to Chief of Police Mike Kitsmiller: “In Marion, we recognized a need to address two problem intersections, and community complaints regarding speeding, while simultaneously trying to overcome staffing shortages.”

Marion has found that Automated Traffic Enforcement systems are many orders of magnitude more efficient and cost-effective at catching and citing speeders, raising revenue, and also taking the pressure off peace officers to handle more pressing calls

“We also asked for, and received, a mobile speed unit which we deploy pursuant to resident complaints regarding speeding,” Kitsmiller said. “We kept track of how many hours we were sitting out shooting radar in response to complaints and I was able to show the council how inefficient that was. The example I used was we monitored 20 locations pursuant to complaints, sat at those locations a total of 39 hours, and walked away with one speeding ticket, nine warnings and an OWI (Operating While Intoxicated). At the end of the day, the council recognized it was more efficient for us to utilize technology, at essentially no cost, to help us perform an essential part of our job. I drafted an ordinance with our city attorney, it passed, and we started implementing the program.”

“Essentially no cost” is eye-catching. There are a number of companies offeringspeed cameras around the country and around the world. Some of them sell the equipment outright and let local jurisdictions deal with installing and maintaining the cameras, issuing citations, fighting them in court, collecting fines.

Other cities in Iowa have publicly reported the results of their speed cameras and the consensus is they are effective not just at making roads safer, but at generating eye-opening revenues for the city.

Prairie City, Iowa, is a very small town of maybe 1,800 souls located 22 miles east of Des Moines. Prairie City installed four cameras, two outside of the school in town on South State Street, one for officers to use as a handheld camera andone on Highway 163 westbound just west of the Prairie City exit.

According to a May 2023 story by James Stratton for KCCI.com titled “Small Iowa Town Makes Millions On Speed Camera Tickets” and subtitled “Some say they’re there for safety, others call them a ‘racket,’” this small Iowa town raked in significantly righteous bucks.

“Still, the small town is making big money on the cameras,” the article states. “Since the city turned them on in fiscal year 2020, Prairie City has made $2.38 million in revenue. KCCI Investigates requested the number of tickets written, and the money the city made, using an open records request. The city said it could only give the number of tickets that were paid, which is 34,515 in that period.

“So far, in fiscal year 2022, the city has collected cash on 25,660 tickets, with roughly two months left to go. In fiscal year 2022, those 25,660 tickets raked in $2.83 million. A third-party company, Blue Line Solutions, owns and operates the cameras and gets 40% of the cut but does reimburse the city for officers’ time. Still, Prairie City has made $1.72 million in the fiscal year 2022. That money is roughly 42% of its total revenue, according to the city’s budget. It’s also about 2.5 times more than the city budgeted to collect in property taxes.”

The KCCI story goes on to say, “The city is using the money to help pay for a new fire and EMS building, renovate the library, reconstruct alleys, relocate water lines and fix its tennis courts.

“‘It helps pay for things, so we don’t have to raise taxes,’ said Mayor [Chad] Alleger, highlighting those projects. “Our tax levy is the same as it was last year.”

One can imagine that the crazy drivers of Iowa are somewhat different than the hot rodders of Malibu — and anyone who has ever dealt with black ice knows how deadly dangerous that stuff is. Speed and red light cameras are working for Prairie City and Marion and other small towns in Iowa: Will that work for Malibu?

Damian Kevitt of Streets are for Everyone is part of the organization responsible for pushing the AB645 legislation from the Assembly to the Senate to the desk of Gov. Gavin Newsom and now AB1297. He is uncomfortable with all the money numbers thrown around in relation to speed cameras, because that’s not what it’s about. Making roads safer is the goal, not raising money, Kevitt says: 

The use of speed enforcement cameras is not about making money. Anyone who says it is is missing the real purpose of any automated enforcement system. They are about saving lives, in this case, by preventing egregious speeding and reducing collisions, serious injuries, and fatalities. 

According to the Federal Highway Administration, speed cameras reduce crashes on urban streets by 54 percent. Further, a global review of speed cameras by the NTSB found that the cameras were effective in reducing fatal collisions by a low of 17 percent to a high of 71 percent.

In case any skeptics think that it’s in some secret way still about making money, SB 1297 and its predecessor, AB 645, which SB 1297 is based on, prevent a municipal government from using these systems to augment its general operating funds by requiring that any profit generated by a speed camera system be used only for road safety improvements in the community. That’s not necessarily the case in other states but that’s how it’s being done in California.

In our conversation, McKevitt said he hoped to get AB1297 passed “so the cameras can be legally allowed starting Jan. 1, 2025. Then there will be time to set the cameras up (a lot of steps to do that) but that will be in the hands of the City of Malibu. That’s the fastest it will go. If we lose this battle for SB 1297 they won’t be allowed till Jan. 1, 2026, at the soonest.

So one of the battles for AB1297 has been won, but what is the procedure and timetable for setting up the cameras? Will Caltrans pay for the installation, monitoring and maintenance of the cameras? City of Malibu? Los Angeles County?

And who will decide where the cameras are placed?

Realtor and City Councilmember Paul Grisanti is concerned enough with speed and safety on PCH that he drives a truck with a message.

Grisanti had this to say about the past and future of speed cameras in Malibu: “What a town over 1,500 miles away can do, and are doing, in their state is not relevant to our menu of possibilities. Under the California test program the fine is limited to $50. The car gets the ticket, not the driver. Cameras are situated to get the license plate, not the driver.

“Do I wish this would result in people getting points on their licenses? Yes! Do I wish the fines were more significant?Yes! 

“The legislation does not allow either of those consequences. The California State legislation limits the fines we can charge to $50.

“The city is very grateful to our representatives in Sacramento, who have gotten us parity with the five initial test communities! Mayor Pro Tem Doug Stewart and City Manager Steve McClary’s efforts have been heroic.”

Malibu Mayor pro tem Doug Stewart had some of those answers

“I would suggest you take a look at where we are on the bill language that was just passed in the Assembly Transportation Committee,” he said. “There have been amendments along the way that have added clarification and complexity.

“Your comments about the company in Sweden providing the cameras at no cost, is strictly not going to be the case for Malibu. As you will see in the bill language such revenue sharing is strictly prohibited.  If we had our ideal outcome, there would be no revenue from the cameras as people would respond to their placement by slowing down.

“The City of Malibu is absorbing all of the costs for the cameras as we believe they are far too critical to have to wait for the state or other sources to find the money to cover the costs. We will be checking to see if we might be able to obtain federal funding, but that is not a requirement to complete the installation.

“As to placement, that is still being determined. The cameras will have to be in fixed locations (no mobile units per the bill) with stringent signage, maintenance, and performance/quality control requirements. 

“As to timing, we will move as quickly as possible, but this will not be instant cameras when the bill has the governor’ssignature.  We have money already allocated for the upcoming fiscal year to start the process and will do so as the bill continues to work its way through the legislature. Once we have a better idea of the final bill we can move forward with design, location, hardware, and operation elements. We are all driven by the concern that a day delayed could cost someone their life or possibly serious injury.”

Paraphrasing a background email from the office of Assemblyperson Jaqui Irwin: The Assembly Transportation Committee passed SB 1297 and the bill has now been passed to the Assembly Privacy and Consumer Protection Committee for its next hearing on July 2. There are other potential committees and the full Assembly that will need to vote on the bill, assuming it makes it through this process, before it gets to the governor’s desk where he will make the decision whether or not to sign it into law.

The language in the bill dictates how and where cameras may be placed. Placement is strategic based on various factors. One requirement is that revenue generated from violations would first have to be used to recover program costs. The City of Malibu is also required to continue to contract with CHP for additional enforcement as part of the bill.

So it appears there are several more hoops — rings of fire — for this legislation to jump through before it’s approved.