Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.
A Minneapolis proposal to address traffic deaths wisely includes asking the state Legislature for approval to use cameras to enforce speeding and other laws. The request for a green light on the pilot surveillance program is part of the city's Vision Zero Action Plan to end traffic deaths and severe injuries by 2027.
The city needs legislative approval because a city plan to use cameras to catch violators was rejected by the state Supreme Court in 2007. At that time, the court had problems specifically with red-light cameras in Minneapolis because the owner of a vehicle could receive a ticket even if someone else was driving, in part because the cameras used then produced poor-quality photos.
The court's opinion said that using cameras was problematic because vehicle owners were presumed guilty and would have to prove they weren't driving. The decision forced the city to reimburse 15,000 drivers who paid tickets a total of $2.6 million.
Camera quality has greatly improved in the past 15 years, and they're now being effectively used for various kinds of surveillance on U.S. roads and highways. At least 18 states and the District of Columbia have some form of photo-enforced traffic control for red lights and/or speeding, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an advocacy group.
During the last legislative session, two bills that would allow Minneapolis to establish a speed safety pilot program were introduced but failed to gain approval. The measures had bipartisan support and should be considered again.
Minneapolis needs the help cameras could bring. In 2020, 16 people died in crashes on city streets; last year that number rose to 23 — the highest number since 2007. Of those fatalities, speeding was a factor in two-thirds of the incidents, which included 11 pedestrian fatalities, according to a city report. It's also worth noting that the city's depleted Police Department no longer has a traffic enforcement division.
Minneapolis adopted Vision Zero in 2017, a strategy to end crashes resulting in a death or serious injury within 10 years. Sweden first adopted a Vision Zero plan in 1997 with the goal of eliminating traffic deaths and injuries by using strategies such as lower speed limits, redesigned streets, behavioral changes and data-driven traffic enforcement.
As part of its plan, Minneapolis has installed bollards to shrink driving lanes on several high-injury streets and intersections. Other traffic-calming efforts include reduced speed limits, concrete medians, extended curbs and retimed stoplights to give pedestrians more time to cross streets.
If the camera pilot is adopted and successful, the city might also target drivers who run red lights, another leading factor in serious injuries, according to city data. Although the Star Tribune Editorial Board generally supports the Vision Zero effort, it's critical that cameras are used effectively and not employed simply to generate ticket revenue.
City planners are updating the Vision Zero plan — including the proposed camera pilot program — and they'll need to ensure that it can find support in the Legislature and survive potential court challenges. To involve citizens in the final plan, the city will hold an online open house at 6 p.m. Thursday. Officials will also accept input online through Dec. 11, with the expectation that the City Council would adopt a final plan early next year.
"This gives me a sense of urgency, [and] many of our team a sense of urgency, to work to get to zero," Ethan Fawley, the city's Vision Zero program coordinator, told a city committee earlier this month. "Those lives lost are unacceptable."