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Red-light, speed cameras on tap as fatal traffic crashes continue to rise in St. Louis

Concrete barriers that prevent drivers from speeding down the center lane of South Grand Boulevard in the Dutchtown neighborhood are shown on Monday, September 18, 2023. The barriers were installed after a driver going 70 miles an hour in the turn lane caused a crash that killed two people.
Rachel Lippmann
St. Louis Public Radio
The St. Louis streets department installed concrete barriers in the turn lane of South Grand Boulevard near St. Mary's High School after a driver going 70 mph in the center lane caused a crash that killed two people in November 2022. Legislation announced Monday would install red-light and speed cameras in an effort to reduce fatal crashes.

Red-light and speed cameras could be coming to St. Louis streets in an effort to reduce the number of fatal traffic crashes in the city.

“Automated traffic enforcement is a proven, effective tool to hold drivers accountable and improve safety on our streets,” Mayor Tishaura Jones said Monday at a news conference outlining the package of legislation. “It is one key tool in our traffic safety toolbox, and I'm ready to work alongside the Board of Aldermen to make our streets safer and hold drivers accountable.”

Traffic crashes began spiking during the pandemic, jumping 10.5% nationally from 2020 to 2021. So far in 2023, 27 people have died in car crashes in St. Louis, along with four pedestrians. Drivers have injured another 134 pedestrians and four cyclists.

The city invested $40 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funding toward traffic engineering like speed humps and improvements at the top 10 traffic crash locations. The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department also stepped up its traffic enforcement and has made 20,000 stops this year.

Officials said the cameras are meant to augment those efforts – financial resources are finite, and there are some locations where traffic stops are impractical or not safe.

“These bills are only the first step,” said Board President Megan Green. “To reach zero traffic fatalities, we will need to commit as a city to a comprehensive shift in how we approach streets, infrastructure, traffic control and education.”

Past and present of red-light cameras

St. Louis first adopted red-light cameras in 2007, and officials say red-light violations dropped 63% at the intersections where they were installed. But the Missouri Supreme Court declared the city’s program unconstitutional in 2015 because the enabling legislation “shift[ed] the burden of persuasion onto the defendant to prove that the defendant was not operating the motor vehicle at the time of the violation."

A draft of the legislation provided to St. Louis Public Radio attempts to address those concerns by requiring any vendor to provide cameras that can take a picture and video of the incident, including the face of the driver.

“I was very happy when the Supreme Court struck down Missouri's law enabling the red-light cameras,” Third Ward Alderman Shane Cohn said. “And I am very happy to say that today, I have worked with the mayor's administration, the city counselor's office and others to try and work to ensure that these are constitutional and that they do not violate due process.”

In an effort to get out ahead of privacy concerns, the draft language makes it clear that the vendor cannot sell the video or photos collected by the cameras. There are also provisions that require the vendor to be able to track who accesses the recordings.

Companion legislation will ensure that funds collected from the use of the automated traffic enforcement devices will go solely to operating the program, and to traffic safety and education programs. There will also be a regular evaluation of the fines and fees levied through the use of cameras to ensure that communities of color are not disproportionately impacted.

Cindy Mense, CEO of the pedestrian and bike advocacy group Trailnet, said equity was equally as important as reducing traffic deaths.

“We want the penalties to be something that is certainly a nuisance, but you don’t want to break people’s lives,” she said.

Next steps

The legislation is expected to be introduced Friday and must have at least one committee hearing before debate by the full Board of Aldermen. It takes at minimum four weeks to get a bill to the mayor’s desk, with major legislation usually taking much longer.

If it is passed and signed, the city would be authorized to seek proposals from vendors. Those would be evaluated for how well the companies meet the privacy and other requirements. Only then will the police department begin to figure out where the cameras will be installed.

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.

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