Future of popular S.J.
anti-speeding program in doubt
COURT CHALLENGE PROMPTS CITY
By Gary Richards
Feb. 26, 2007
* Catching speeders with radar
A city program that uses hidden cameras to snare speeders
has dramatically slowed traffic on San Jose streets, but it's facing a serious
It may be illegal.
Though neighbors and city council members praise the
program, its likely demise will be welcome news to motorists like Roger
Luebkeman. Three years ago, he was headed down Booksin Avenue going 35 mph in a
25 zone. Weeks later, he got a speeding ticket in the mail.
Luebkeman hadn't noticed a white minivan sitting
unobtrusively on the side of the road. Inside sat a traffic technician, and two
radar cameras snapped photos of Luebkeman's car.
But Luebkeman isn't an ordinary motorist. He had been a
traffic lieutenant in the Santa Clara Police Department, and he knew that only
cops can issue speeding tickets.
So he asked a court to rule the photos were inadmissible
because the worker was not a policeman and he never got a chance to sign the
photo citation. The court agreed.
Last fall, with similar complaints piling up, the Santa
Clara County District Attorney's Office began questioning the system, prompting
San Jose officials to reconsider.
Now the city council is set to vote next month on whether
to stop using the cameras to ticket drivers. Instead, San Jose likely will just
send out warnings, trying both to comply with the state vehicle code -- which
permits cameras only to catch red-light runners at intersections and says cops
alone can issue speeding tickets -- and to placate residents who want to keep
the cameras in place.
``I'm really chagrined about this,'' Councilman Sam
Liccardo said at a hearing last week. ``This is a great program, and I want to
see it extended.''
Without the punch of a hefty fine, city officials worry
drivers will return to their lead-footed ways. But they say the warnings are a
better approach than simply abandoning the program, which is perhaps the most
effective traffic-calming measure the city employs against speeders.
7,000 tickets last year
San Jose has used the Neighborhood Automated Speed
Compliance Program, or NASCOP, since 1996. It is the only city in California
now using cameras to slow drivers. The city last year sent out 7,000 violation
notices generated by the camera program.
Since the program's introduction, city traffic studies
have credited it with a 62 percent reduction in motorists going 10 mph or
faster than the speed limit. Overall speeds have fallen 8 percent. And early
studies showed a 44 percent decline in crashes.
City officials turned to the program after a series of
neighborhood meetings in the early 1990s. At each session, residents complained
about drivers going way too fast as kids played outside, pedestrians strolled
through neighborhoods and residents tried to back out of driveways.
The city lacked enough traffic cops to make much of a
difference. So the idea of camera-toting vans was hatched.
When Liccardo ran for city council last fall and knocked
on doors of voters, the message echoed those of more than a decade ago.
``Speeding,'' he said. ``It's the No. 1 concern expressed
by residents downtown.''
The city only sends the vans out to neighborhoods where a
majority of residents want cameras and where police agree speeding is a
Resident Todd Wester often sees one of the white vans
parked on what he calls the ``Los Pinos speedway drive'' in his Santa Teresa
``One day I sat there during the time Bertha Taylor
Elementary School was to be let out, and the flash on that van lit up so much I
thought it was a strobe light,'' said Wester, 42. ``I love photo radar. I would
love to have 50 motorcycle cops parked there instead; however, I know that's not
Lack of resources
San Jose has 36 motorcycle officers in its traffic
enforcement unit -- a half dozen fewer than three years ago and the same number
it had in 1986, when the city population was 733,000. There are nearly 1 million
Yet police oppose the use of photo radar, from the
California Highway Patrol down to city cops.
``We don't have the resources to do the enforcement,''
said San Jose Assistant Police Chief Tuck Younis. ``But we feel the most
important deterrent is a patrol car with a uniformed police officer.''
Countered Jim Helmer, head of the city's Department of
Transportation: ``We really cannot address the speeding problem through the
police department or traffic control measures.''
Dropped by Campbell
Campbell was the first city in Northern California to use
photo radar. It dropped the program in 1998 after eight years, saying the state
Legislature had not given permission to penalize drivers who ignored the
by-mail speeding tickets -- as one of every three drivers did.
The cameras also have been challenged in Southern
California, where in 2000 a court dismissed a speeding ticket issued to a
driver who complained the state vehicle code only allows cameras for red-light
violations. The speeding program there was subsequently dropped.
But San Jose officials thought they were safe because
their program was based on the penal code instead of the vehicle code. For the
next six years, the program expanded from an original 20 residential streets to
Then came legal challenges like Luebkeman's.
Bills have been proposed twice in the Legislature to
allow cameras to catch speeders, but both have failed to get out of committee.
``If we expect citizens to follow the law, we must expect
the city to follow the law,'' Luebkeman said. ``All the citations issued should
be recalled and the driving records cleaned. All those people that got
citations and paid hundreds of dollars should get refunds.''
San Jose officials say they have no plans to do that.
Switching to a warning-only system will mean a slight hit
to the city budget; it takes $340,000 a year to run the program, and without
any ticket revenue, that cost will climb about $80,000 annually.
But Helmer, the city traffic chief, said the program's
still worth keeping.
``It's been a creative, innovative program,'' he said.