What if the roving CHP officer was replaced with a machine stationed on the freeway, like an officer with radar and a camera permanently parked on the side of the road?
"If you were to observe a freeway from a helicopter and see an officer parked, you'd see a bottleneck, congestion, slowing near the officer, and then speeding back up," says Dr. Simon Washington of Arizona State University.
Washington studied the impact of automated speed enforcement on a 6.5 mile stretch of highway in Scottsdale.
He says, "Speed does matter."
Washington presented his results at UC Berkeley in May. His 10-month study showed a 30 to 40 percent reduction in crashes and led to statewide adoption of automated speed enforcement on the freeways.
"High rates of speed actually are really related to the severity of crashes that can change lives forever; so speed does matter," he says.
At Caltran's request, UC Berkeley engineering professor Ching-Yao Chan is leading a study to see if a system like Arizona's might be a good idea here.
"I do believe when implemented properly at selected, certain locations, they will be beneficial," he told ABC7.
Like the red light cameras at San Francisco intersections, the freeway systems snap a picture and a ticket is sent to the offender. Chan tested a few different systems at three Bay Area freeway locations with cameras disabled. He says they are accurate enough at measuring speed and although the technology is easy, the public support will be hard.
A new law would be required to clear the way for their use.
"We would need to get support from government officials, we need to get support from lawmakers and we need to get support from the public, all the stakeholders to come together and say this is a good thing," he said.
Chan points out that highway cameras are used widely throughout the U.K., Europe and Australia.
"We're carefully evaluating their experience and trying to forecast how it would play out here in California," says CHP Chief of Planning and Analysis Jim McLaughlin.
The CHP is looking at what has happened in Arizona. McLaughlin says they are worried about losing the direct human contact.
"The officer is able to evaluate the driver's sobriety, whether or not they're in compliance with restrictions, like eyeglasses, a teenager with other kids in the car, would not occur," he says.
He says the automated system's greatest value could be at places where traditional enforcement is difficult like bridges, tunnels and work zones, where it can be hard to stop someone with reasonable safety.
Dr. Washington says one thing is clear in Arizona; the cameras helped save lives. People slow down when they know a camera is watching. Washington says motor vehicle crashes are the number one killer for the age group 5 to 35. Inattentiveness and speed are the major contributors to accidents.
"We pour money into cancer research, AIDS research, for good reason," he says. "But, there's a certain amount of complacency in accepting 40,000 fatalities a year on our roads."
UC Berkeley's report will be presented to state lawmakers in a couple months.