Photo depicting a close-up of a CCTV traffic camera overlooking an intersection.

OPINION | Seattle’s Automated Traffic Cameras Disproportionately Target Neighborhoods of Color

by Ethan C. Campbell and Nura Ahmed

Picture this: It’s a warm, sunny Tuesday afternoon, and you got off work early.

Your drive home takes you along a busy, wide road like Rainier Avenue. Squinting from the sunlight in your eyes, you miss the flashing sign that notes the speed limit is reduced to 20 MPH during school hours. It’s your mistake, of course, but one that is hardly surprising. Arterial roads like Rainier Avenue are designed for high speeds, and the fast-flowing traffic and expanse of concrete in front of your windshield offer few visual cues to slow down. You don’t realize it, but a camera has snapped a photo of your license plate.

Two weeks later, you find a $237 ticket in your mailbox. You can’t afford to pay for both the ticket and the week’s groceries, so you weigh the alternative options listed: 14 hours of community service at minimum wage, a payment plan, or a court hearing. Overwhelmed by the time and paperwork required to access those alternatives, you decide to ignore the ticket. It gets sent to collections, lowering your credit score and your chances of securing housing in the future.

These days, this type of silent ticketing is the main form of traffic enforcement experienced by Seattle residents. A new City analysis has found that the cameras disproportionately target drivers in Communities of Color, mirroring findings from Chicago and other cities. As members of Whose Streets? Our Streets! (WSOS), a group advocating for enforcement in Seattle’s transportation system to be more equitable and less punitive, this realization set off alarm bells. We are asking Seattle’s Department of Transportation (SDOT) to take a step back and urgently make changes to ensure that automated enforcement does not unfairly burden BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) communities in our city.

To be clear, there are good reasons to support a shift away from police traffic stops and towards automated ticketing. In 2022, Seattle police wrote an average of just 11 traffic tickets each day, and the department dedicates only 15 officers to conducting traffic stops for the entire city. The few police who are on the job still manage to ticket Black drivers at a rate three times higher than their share of Seattle’s population, according to SDOT. Black residents find themselves at police gunpoint far more frequently than others. Automated cameras offer the promise of addressing these harms through consistent enforcement that is not riddled with bias, doesn’t threaten lives, and cannot enable pretextual investigative stops. Plus, data shows that the city’s red light and school zone speed cameras really do create safer streets: Broadly speaking, the cameras seem to be effective at curbing speeding and collisions.

But rates of automated ticketing in Seattle have soared: Cameras now issue nearly 200,000 tickets each year, almost 50 times more than police officers, and Seattle plans to double the number of school zone speed cameras in 2023. Our City and State’s rapid expansion of this mode of enforcement raises difficult questions that demand community input and scrutiny. We would like to invite you to share your thoughts in our survey about the future of camera ticketing in Seattle, and to attend our community town hall on this topic on Tuesday, March 14 (see below for more information). The perspectives you provide will be invaluable as our group advocates for a better approach to automated enforcement.

Meanwhile, those of us working with Whose Streets? Our Streets! believe that the City need not wait to address glaring issues in their implementation of automated enforcement. As a starting point, we propose the following common-sense fixes:

  1. The distribution of cameras in Seattle must be equitable.

    Today, 65% of cameras are located in neighborhoods with relatively more People of Color and immigrants, while 18% are in neighborhoods with the fewest, according to SDOT’s new analysis. The City should increase cameras in wealthier, whiter areas of the city to balance the distribution. While Seattle’s shameful history of racialized disinvestment in safe street infrastructure means that our most deadly streets — arterials like Rainier Avenue and Lake City Way — run through Communities of Color, this cannot be an excuse to disproportionately burden marginalized communities while they wait for overdue safety improvements.
  1. All cameras should issue warnings instead of tickets for first-time violations, and the City should add more signage to warn drivers as they approach cameras.

    SDOT ought to remember that the goal of enforcement is to change behavior, not to punish. The City’s own data indicates that issuing first-time warnings is likely to be just as effective: 95% of Seattle residents who are ticketed never receive a second ticket at the same location, and similar numbers are seen for first-time warnings that are currently issued during the first 30 days after a camera’s installation.
  1. The City should set ticket fines based on income, and it should expand alternative options for those who cannot afford to pay.

    A $237 ticket may be pocket change for a household earning Seattle’s median income of nearly $111,000, but can mean the difference between paying rent or affording groceries for low-income families. Implementing a tiered ticketing structure will admittedly present administrative challenges, but has proven successful outside the U.S. and is essential to leveling the unequal burden currently imposed by tickets. In the interim, SDOT should reduce fines across the board, as the academic literature shows that traffic fine amounts are only weakly connected to violation rates.
  1. All revenue should go into making local streets safer.

    Currently, only 20% of the approximately $3 million in annual revenue generated from Seattle’s red light cameras goes towards street safety and pedestrian improvements. The remainder goes to the City’s general fund, where it can be spent on any program. With future increases in automated ticketing, the City runs the risk of becoming dependent on income from punitive enforcement to balance its budget. The City should instead invest in the safety of its communities by dedicating all camera revenue to local street improvement projects.

SDOT should diligently take these steps to make automated enforcement more equitable and less punitive. It must also be cognizant of how traffic cameras represent an expansion of the street surveillance apparatus faced by Communities of Color in Seattle. While state law currently restricts their use to traffic ticketing, pending legislation may soon make all automated enforcement cameras in Washington available to law enforcement for any purpose, provided that a search warrant is obtained. The proposed change — applied to our city’s uneven distribution of cameras — risks feeding the perception that the free movement and civil liberties of BIPOC residents are increasingly under threat. This is a burden already felt in the form of over-policing through investigative stops, the monitoring of Black Lives Matter protests from the air and the streets, closed-circuit TV cameras watching over protests and South End neighborhoods, license plate readers and cellphone-detecting traffic sensors, and a recent mayoral proposal to install gunshot listening devices throughout Rainier Beach. The long, sweeping history of mass surveillance of Black Americans makes for visceral, unavoidable fears of further State-sanctioned loss of privacy.

Above all, we urge Seattle’s Department of Transportation to reconsider their creeping reliance on automated cameras as a permanent solution for traffic safety. True safety for all who use Seattle’s roadways will not come from mailed tickets issued by a patchwork of automated cameras. True safety will only be created by investments in always-turned-on street engineering solutions that encourage slower, safer movement of vehicles and protect pedestrians and bicyclists by design. Safer streets are needed throughout the city, but particularly in neighborhoods of color that have been harmed by historical disinvestment. Meanwhile, placing new automated cameras should be considered only as a stopgap measure, one that should be accompanied by site-specific plans for physical street safety improvements that will significantly diminish the need for enforcement in the future.

Please consider sharing your perspective about automated enforcement in our group’s survey. We also invite you to attend our upcoming community town hall on automated enforcement on Tuesday, March 14, 2023. The event will be held from 6 to 9 p.m. at Rainier Arts Center in Columbia City (3515 S Alaska St., Seattle, WA). Dinner and childcare will be provided. For updates, follow our Instagram @ourstreets_seattle.

The South Seattle Emerald is committed to holding space for a variety of viewpoints within our community, with the understanding that differing perspectives do not negate mutual respect amongst community members.

The opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints expressed by the contributors on this website do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints of the Emerald or official policies of the Emerald.

Ethan C. Campbell is a safe streets advocate in Central Seattle, a researcher, and a member of Whose Streets? Our Streets!

Nura Ahmed is an organizer, writer, and artist based in Seattle and South King County, and is a member of Whose Streets? Our Streets!

📸 Featured Image: Photo via batjaket/

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