Thursday, June 30, 2005

Traffic Cameras Need to Go

In the last month my wife and I have gotten four speeding tickets. Nope, not from traffic cops. From those cameras that take a photo of your car as it “speeds” past a radar. You get the ticket in the mail anywhere from one to two weeks after the offense.

Long before I started getting these tickets, I was strongly opposed to these cameras. You can imagine what four tickets in four weeks has done for my tolerance. Simply put, these things have no place in our cities. They are a terrible bit of government overreach, line the pockets of corporations and set a horrible precedent for policing.

First, there’s little evidence that the cameras increase safety. There’s data to back this up, but you really don’t need any hard numbers to come to this conclusion. It’s hard to slow down and be safer if I get the ticket two weeks after I was speeding. Second, what is speeding? My wife got one ticket for going 32 in a 25. And that 25 speed limit is on a major DC road where the flow of traffic easily and safely exceeds 40mph at any given time.

Such incidents of artificially low speed limits has pushed DC councilwoman Carol Swartz to propose raising limits on many roads. Of course, that would mean less profit for the city. The cameras are a cash cow for both the city and for Affiliated Computer Services Inc., the company that runs them (they bought the contract from Lockheed Martin).

The profit-motive of these cameras coupled with the fact they do little to increase safety should be enough to make any right-minded citizen oppose their use. But there is one other good reason to want these cameras taken down. Think about this: do we want our laws enforced by computers?

The judgment of a police officer cannot be replaced by a camera. A free society relies on our laws being enforced not by strict, insensitive machines but by human beings who can assess a situation and determine the best course of action. And our laws do not exist to provide the government with a sneaky source of revenue. If the city wants more funds, they should try raising taxes.

If you think I’m writing this post because my family just got four tickets in one month, you’re right. The city just robbed me. I don’t like my government using computers to enforce the law. I don’t like my government watching me with cameras. And I don’t like being charged $50 for traveling 32 in a 25. It’s terrible government.


At 8:49 AM, Blogger Dennis Sanders said...

All I can say is, Amen.

Here in Minneapolis, they are going to place the cameras at traffic interesections to catch those who run red lights. Now, I can understand the need to stop people from doing that, but I worry that it's only a matter of time before we start getting cameras that will catch us for speeding. And here in Minneapolis, the ticket charges are $142.

At 12:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have been stopped for speeding before when other cars were passing me. That is a judgement call. The officer decided to make an example out of me as opposed to the others. Cameras would not be able to make such calls. Every car that can be identified would be ticketed.

I can understand your frustration with the extremely low speed limit, but it is the law. You do point out that there are those who are working to raise the limits. Perhaps you should channel your frustration into helping change that which frustrates you.

Speeding is a pretty clear cut offense. Either you are driving faster than the limit, or you are not. If you are aware of the limit and are exceeding it, then you are choosing to break the law and should be ready to face the consequences. Whether the ticket comes from an officer or a computer. It is not a lesser law just because you do not agree with it. Where do you draw the line? Which laws are ok to ignore and which are not?

If you don't like the cameras, work to get rid of them.

At 12:45 PM, Blogger Alan Stewart Carl said...

It's not a matter of not wanting to obey the law--it's a matter of how the cameras are used. They aren't enforcing the law. Enforcement indicated an effort to stop unlawful behavoir. These cameras don't stop unlawful behavoir--they merely exploit the law for financial gain.

And while I don't think these cameras are a sign that we'll soon have cameras watching us everywhere, I simply do not like the idea that the government can watch us through cameras. Freedom requires a good degree of anonymity. A constantly monitored society may be a safe one, but it wouldn't be a free one.

At 2:20 PM, Blogger Heiuan said...

I got used to traffic cameras when my husband was stationed in Germany with the Army. They are used quite a bit in Europe as a whole.

The thing with the European camera setups is that there is a big sign posted about 100 feet before the camera that warns motorists that the camera is there.

The cameras are used in residential and/or heavy foot traffic areas to slow people down. They're also posted at stop lights.

Most European cameras have a 5 mph leeway simply because that is necessary for differing rates of accuracy in speedometers in vehicles.

I agree with using them as a deterrent. I'm tired of people running the damned red light and whipping thru our shopping and housing areas.

If you're going more than 5 mph over the speed limit, you're speeding on purpose; therefore, you roll the dice and take your chances.

It does suck to get clicked 4 times in a month. But, Alan, you can avoid those tickets by slowing down.

At 3:03 PM, Blogger Alan Stewart Carl said...


I'm sorry, but I disagree. Speeding is one of the most minor offenses we can commit. In fact, I'd say it is the most minor. Speed limits only exist for public safety reasons, not out of some ethical need. Thus, enforcement should be focused solely on public safety. These cameras provide almost no public safety component. If they were clearly marked like you say they are in Germany, then that'd be acceptable to me. But they are hidden. As such, they are just a squirly little tax.

AAA even revoked its support of them because DC has admitted the cameras' primary purpose is to generate revenue not improve safety.

And again, I reiterate my concern about computers watching us. Maybe the next step will be to place little sensors in our cars to make sure we're buckling up and not chatting on our cell phones while we drive. No, I don't think that would ever happen, but is it really that much different than these hidden traffic cameras?

At 3:37 PM, Blogger EG said...

I have a dog and nearly every morning, I take him for a walk. I live near a wooded park, swimming pool (a kid magnet) and tennis courts. I am shocked to see my neighbors going full bore, flying in excess of 50 mph on a 30 mph road. Come on, anyone can't be running late every morning! People find speeding to work, to school, to the shop acceptable as long as there are no tickets. You might be surprised to see parents(!) ignore flashing lights of a school bus as children debark in the afternoon.

One question: Are you and your wife watching the speedometer now?

At 4:23 PM, Blogger Alan Stewart Carl said...


Why doesn't your neighborhood put in speed bumps? Those tend to work much better than a camera.

I know my aversion to government cameras is unpopular. I skew libertarian on that issue. I don't like secret monitoring with penalties I can't reasonably challenge in court. There are better ways to increase safety than setting up secret cameras. And there are better ways to raise revenue than by exploiting artifically low speed limits.

And, to answer your question, no, I don't pay attention to the speedometer any more frequently now than before. I am a very safe driver, as is my wife. Neither of us ever go faster than the flow of traffic. Not a single one of our tickets came for going any faster than 42. And all came on multi-lane roads that are major streets in DC.

Our society has a bad habit of allowing freedoms to be restricted in the name of "safety." If I'm driving safely, I should have the freedom to travel through DC without getting taxed (I mean ticketed).

At 6:34 PM, Blogger EG said...

Speed bumps are in some neighborhoods in my area but most of the streets where I live are cul-de-sacs so the traffic engineers probably don't see the reason for them. That's why I know the speeders are my neighbors.

At 3:51 AM, Blogger Ted Carmichael said...

Before I start playing 'devil's advocate,' Alan, let me say this: I totally agree with you that these tickets should be challengable in court. It is outrageous, in my mind, that any city government can issue citations without any sort of checks and balances. I mean, where's the due process?

Second, I also agree that using these as a source of revenue - instead of a public safety issue - is wrong. And timeliness is definitely important. I would push for some sort of limit on that ... say, you can't get a ticket if a previous one hasn't arrived yet ... or even disallow tickets that take to long to reach the person. Or have an automatic message caller to let you know it's on the way. Lot's of options there.

On the other side of the coin, if applied correctly, these automatic speed traps have a definite upside. Too often, I've seen unreasonably low speed limits in certain areas. If every car that speeds in these areas get a ticket, then eventually an outcry will ensue and the limit will have to be raised. Otherwise, most of those who disagree with the low speed limit simply ignore it, with little risk of being caught.

BTW - I love speed 'humps' ... if they're used properly. If you can go over the hump at exactly the speed limit, I've got no problem with that. But too many of them make you slow down way more than the limit, which really annoys the sh*t out of me.


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