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Aug 10 2010

The puzzling opposition to red light and speed cameras

I am often taken by surprise at the kinds of things that people get really upset about. For example, many cities and states have recently taken to placing cameras strategically at various points to catch speeders and people who run red lights. The camera takes a photo of an offender and you get the citation in the mail. I didn’t think too much about this innovation and when I did it seemed to me to make a lot of sense. At the very least, it releases police to do more important work like catching criminals. It seems like such a waste to have police spend huge amounts of time lurking just to catch the occasional speeder.

Furthermore, the camera system seems to have the advantage of complete impartiality. It does not care what kind of car committed the offense, whether it is a dull old minivan or a flashy red sports car. More importantly, it does not discriminate among drivers either. The camera does not know or care if you are old or young, rich or poor, black or white, attractive or homely, well-spoken or inarticulate. It does not care if you are a person of influence or a nobody. Cameras do not profile people.

In other words, these cameras allow us to actually practice the ideals of justice, completely blind to everything except whether one has committed the offense or not. And yet, these cameras are generating huge amounts of controversy with citizen petitions and referenda demanding their removal and state legislature passing laws banning them. And since the people leading this charge tend to be those who belong to the middle and upper classes, their voices are, of course, heeded. What explains this fervor against something so reasonable?

Some people object to the red light cameras by claiming that they are designed to trap people, because the duration of the yellow lights is made too short to allow one to stop safely without being rear-ended. But this seems to me to be a technical issue that can be resolved easily with proper guidelines and standards. Also, drivers are supposed to keep a safe distance behind the car in front to allow for such sudden stops.

Others argue against the cameras on the grounds that they were installed as revenue generators rather than to encourage safer driving. So what if they are? I do not understand this objection. After all, the laws and fines were already there. No one seemed to have any problem with them being enacted. It is strange that what people are objecting to is them being enforced more vigorously and efficiently. The fact is that these camera are catching people who are violating the law. If people want to defy their municipality’s cunning plan to increase revenues, all they have to do is obey existing traffic laws.

And the laws that are being violated are hardly unreasonable laws. No one will deny that people who speed and run red lights are placing other people at risk. Nor are the laws so secret and subtle that one does not know one is violating them. All drivers know what they should do when approaching a traffic light. In the US especially, speed limit signs are ubiquitous and one has little excuse for not knowing what it is on any given stretch of road.

I was really puzzled by this opposition to traffic cameras until I read an article by George Monbiot in the London Guardian discussing similar puzzling opposition in England.

In every other sector, Conservatives insist that it is daft for human beings to do the work machines could do. In every other instance they demand that police officers be freed from mindless tasks to spend more time preventing serious crime. In all other cases they urge more rigorous enforcement of the law. On every other occasion they insist that local authorities should raise revenue and make their schemes pay for themselves. But it all goes into reverse when they are exposed to the beams of a fiendish instrument of mind control.

The moment they pass through its rays, Conservatives turn from penny-pinching authoritarians into spendthrift hoodie-huggers. They demand that a job now performed consistently and cheaply by machines should be handed back to human beings, who will do it patchily and at great expense. They urge that police officers be diverted from preventing serious crime to stand in for lumps of metal. They insist that those who break the law should not be punished or even caught. They clamour for councils to abandon a scheme that almost pays for itself, and replace it with one that requires constant subsidies.

Monbiot has a convincing theory as to why traffic cameras cause people to reverse almost every principle they claim to uphold, despite the fact that such cameras lead to reductions in traffic accidents and mortality rates. Monbiot argues that it is the very impartiality of the cameras that, rather than being seen as the good thing it undoubtedly is, is causing the opposition. Most people think that they somehow have an edge that they can use to escape paying the fine if they are caught by real live traffic police. They think they are important enough or look respectable or influential or attractive enough, or that they can manufacture some plausible excuse, that will get them off the hook. It is just the young and poor and people of color who tend to be out of luck when it comes to finding ways to escape.

In other words, traffic cameras commit the worst offense: they do not respect class privilege. I have to agree with Monbiot’s conclusion, though in the US I would expand his group from ‘conservatives’ to all members of the better-off classes: “The real reason why Conservatives hate the enforcement of speed limits is that this is one of the few laws which is as likely to catch the rich as the poor: newspaper editors and council leaders are as vulnerable as anyone else. The Conservative reaction to speed cameras suggests that they love laws, except those which apply to them.”

POST SCRIPT: Threatening the 14th amendment

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21 comments

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  1. 1
    Paul Jarc

    Others argue against the cameras on the grounds that they were installed as revenue generators rather than to encourage safer driving. So what if they are? I do not understand this objection. After all, the laws and fines were already there.

    The general laws don’t change, but the particular speed limits, signal timing, etc., might. Fortunately, this is an empirical question: if the installation of automated cameras correlates with lowering of speed limits or shortening of yellow-light times, then we can say that government seems to be over-prosecuting for monetary gain. If not, not. Unfortunately, the data could be hard to track down–especially for yellow-light times, where a change may not be immediately obvious.

  2. 2
    Dean

    Another aspect is that there is evidence that red light cameras increase the incidence of accidents. Assuming that the references in this blog entry are accurate:

    http://mustardstreet.blogspot.com/2010/08/red-light-cameras-primer.html

  3. 3
    Jared A

    Interesting piece. I don’t mind the speeding and red light cameras, because they are enforcing a clearly understood and straightforward law. I only am bothered when it feels like I have to be fearful even if I am doing my very best to follow the law.

    I am specifically reminded of a recent thing they started doing in New Jersey, which is cracking down on pedestrian safety violations. There is a new traffic law that states that if a pedestrian is standing at a crosswalk you must completely stop for them (assuming there are no traffic signals to direct you), while before you only had to yield for them. So effectively the presence of a pedestrian near a crosswalk, regardless of intent to cross, is the same as a stop sign. People always complain about new traffic laws, but I think that it is actually a rather reasonable one and is worth trying out to see if it reduces pedestrian collisions.

    Where it gets a little sketchy is how the state has decided to raise awareness of the new law. A plain clothes police officer stands near a crosswalk. He or she will never try to actually cross, but stands close enough to the crosswalk that you legally should stop. If you slow down but don’t come to a full stop (perhaps because the person you are stopping for clearly isn’t trying to cross) the officer radios a patrol car which pulls you over. To “raise awareness” the officer will give you the maximum $200+court-costs fine, 2 points on your license, and up to 15 days community service.

    I think that a public awareness campaign is a good idea, because it gives people the chance to learn about the new law, but the automatic penalty attached seems a little too drastic. The difference between the old law and the new one is subtle enough that there are many ways that innocent mistakes can be made.

    Here’s a relevant news article, bhttp://www.newjerseynewsroom.com/state/nj-law-now-requires-drivers-stop-for-pedestrians-in-crosswalks

  4. 4
    Mano

    This raises an interesting point that I did not address in my post. Currently the fines for offenses are pretty high. I think this is because your odds of getting caught running a red light or speeding or not stopping for a pedestrian (as in Jared A’s example) is pretty small so the fines are made high to act as a deterrent.

    If we automate it so that there is a high probability of getting caught (as with cameras), then the fines can be made much smaller and still have a deterrent effect. It may well be that having to pay lots of small fines is more of a deterrent to breaking the law than a few large ones. Also if each fine is small, people may be more accepting of the cameras.

    This is just a hypothesis of course.

  5. 5
    Jared A

    The size of the fine is an interesting point that I hadn’t considered. It certainly seems worth investigating how the penalty vs. probability of being caught affects driving decisions.

    One thing I got wrong in my previous post is that in the case of plain clothes police officers they are actually crossing the street in most cases, which changes the “sneakiness” of the enforcement drastically. Only if there are instances as I described before, where they discriminate between the new and old formulations of the law, then I think it is going a little over the decency line.

  6. 6
    John

    Mano, I have to admit that I’m one of those people who really doesn’t like speed cameras. Your post made me consider my reasoning more carefully, though.

    I travel into and out of downtown Cleveland every day to get to my job. And during rush hour (which is fairly tame in Cleveland), speed laws are not enforced by police in the same way they are by speed cameras. Many times, I have driven alongside police cruisers on Chester Ave. at 40 mph ( against the posted speed limit of 35mph), only to wait for everyone to slow down at E 70th for the camera, and then speed up again, and slow down again after E 55th for the next camera, and speed up again.

    This suggests that 40 mph is a safe speed for this area, which has very few pedestrians. It further suggest that these particular speed cameras were installed primarily as revenue generators, with little regard for appropriate speed limits. Many of the funds captured are from suburban residents commuting to their places of work in the City (these people already pay income tax to Cleveland in addition to taxes in their home municipalities).

    My view is that speed cameras have their place, namely, where people routinely drive at unsafe speeds. But in many locations, the speed limit is set artificially low, and these tend to be the places where cities (Cleveland, at least) place speed cameras.

    Red light cameras are a different case, as running a red light at any speed seems to me to be much more dangerous than driving with the pack when the pack is going above the posted speed limit. I think that our traffic laws need rationalization. I don’t think speed cameras are helping.

    I do like your observation that cameras don’t notice class. Is there a way to get the (human) police to behave this way?

  7. 7
    Sam

    After following your blog for a few years now, I’ve rarely had reason to disagree with you. With this you’re missing some facts though.

    Big one is that read liight cameras do not make intersections safer, mainly because of human behavior. People jerk to a stop as not every intersection has them, causing rear end collisions. While yes, there should be a minimum distance allowed by drivers, that works on ideal roads with an ideal amount of traffic and ideal drivers. Often at rush hour, their is simply no way to maintain that distance given the space.

    Also is the problem of their inaccuracy. That they were put in place to make money matters because it is a dis-incentive to fix them when they ticket you for going over a line or being stuck in the intercection as traffic backs up. Combined with the profit sharing some municipalities engage in with the manufactures of these cameras, people see them first and foremost as a scam.

    When discussing speed cameras, same problem applies. As the previous poster mentions, speed limits are often extremely low or built to change quickly, originally for officers to catch you. Mayfield road for instance with its inane 35-25-35 setup. Not to mention the taxpayer cost, nor the privacy issues these cause.

    I learned growing up from my dad, who started driving commercially at the age of 14 in 1946. Every strange turn, behavior and oddity of drivers, police, roadbuilders and politicians. The foreman of the I-270 project in Columbus explained halfway through that the radius of a cloverleaf intersection was too small, and would cause many more accidents. It was an election year, and.. Rose? wouldn’t let the bungle out for political reasons. The idea was to expand them later. In many places that still hasn’t happened. Seatbelt laws, when originally passed were heavily opposed, as people didn’t feel it was the States right to tell you what you could or couldn’t do with your own body. It was a secondary offence, meaning you couldn’t get pulled over for that alone. It passed, and a few years later was a primary offence, with some of the proceedes in Ohio going to the Highway Patrol. A conflict of interest? In the same way, cameras were bought for the wrong reasons are ineffective in their current state.

    A better plan to look forward to is variable speed limits, robotic assisted driving and cables under the road to do analysis of speed/braking and traffic habits, expecially in real time. When the greed/inefficencies are ironed out of our current system and simple disregard for laws is the biggest problem, then it is time to reimplement them.

    Reducing this to some kind of class privledge is missing a larger picture.

  8. 8
    James

    Sam,

    Your arguments are quite unconvincing. If you rear-end someone, it’s just your fault, end of story. It’s doesn’t matter if it was due to sudden braking for a red-light or a dog in the street. You were following too closely and driving too fast. There are no excuses that mitigate that basic fact. Maintaining a reasonably safe following distance and speed are not dependent on the road conditions being ideal, that is just ridiculous. The less ideal the conditions, the greater need for a margin of safety. That is the responsibility of the licensed driver.

    What is your reasoning to claim that speed limits are “extremely low?” That’s a bold claim. Speed limits are established based on the average stopping distances of personal motor vehicles in average driving conditions balanced with the visibility and conditions of the roadway. This provides a speed where nearly all vehicles can operate and react safely in nearly all moderate driving conditions with a margin of error. This seems like a perfectly reasonable method to me.

    The rest of your post sounds exactly like a class-based whinging about being accountable. Operating a motor vehicle on the public roadways is not a constitutional right. It is a privilege that is subject to reasonable restrictions and penalties.

  9. 9
    Sam

    James,

    You need you need to get this idealistic view of transportation laws in this country out of your head. Its simply incorrect. Your black and white view of who is at fault doesn’t take into account engineering problems with massive numbers of irrational actors given limits of money, space and time. Do you think dead mans curve in Cleveland is built that way because of saftey reasons? Or because they couldn’t get right-of-way on either side to make that turn shallower? I’m sure they could increase car distance on Chester if they increased the ramp distance to the freeway. Then Chester wouldn’t back up during rush hour. Just have to move those pesky buildings in the way.

    I bet you could increase saftey as I drive to Chicago by building deer fences along the entire freeway. Or maybe mandate every car have racing level disc breaks. And speaking of class, who do you think stops faster, a civic or a mercedes? And even better, who do you think those 100$ red light fines hurt more, the guy in the civic or the mercedes?

    There are good things to spend money on that increase saftey in a reasonable manner. Red light cameras in their current implementation are not one of them. And don’t give me the shit that its just a privledge. Being a privledge doesn’t change the fact that my tax dollars pay for the roads, doesn’t remove the responsibility of the government to remove kickbacks and corruption, and sure as hell doesn’t mean I will let them squeeze more out a the random sample who drive for no benefit.

    Also, where the hell are you from? You try getting a job, just make sure to tell them they need to provide transportation, as you don’t drive. Its a requirment in the US,. Don’t trivialize that.

  10. 10
    wedding invitations

    I’ve always been puzzled by this opposition myself. this is the first really plausible explanation ‘ve encountered for it.

  11. 11
    wedding invitations

    I’ve always been puzzled by this opposition myself. this is the first really plausible explanation ‘ve encountered for it.

  12. 12
    wedding invitations

    I’ve always been puzzled by this opposition myself. this is the first really plausible explanation ‘ve encountered for it.

  13. 13
    wedding invitations

    I’ve always been puzzled by this opposition myself. this is the first really plausible explanation ‘ve encountered for it.

  14. 14
    wedding invitations

    I’ve always been puzzled by this opposition myself. this is the first really plausible explanation ‘ve encountered for it.

  15. 15
    James

    Stoked some self-righteous indignation here, haven’t I?

    Nowhere have I claimed that the nature of traffic laws or enforcement is infallible, that is a ridiculous straw-man argument. I pointed out that there is a method to the madness, so to speak. That method may be one you agree with or not, but it’s not based on a conspiracy to fleece you personally.

    Your examples of Dead Man’s Curve and and the Chester Ave. exit don’t help your case any. The reasons collisions occur is nearly always due to one or more parties failing to act responsibly. I have several years experience in investigating traffic collisions (they aren’t accidents). The driver of that Civic better keep more than ten feet between his bumper and the Mercedes. No one should be operating their vehicle at the limits of it’s capabilities, and if they do, they are at fault for the consequences. Lousy road conditions and bad design are no excuse for complacency and irresponsible actions. You agreed to that when you got your license and every time you operate a vehicle.

    You can not like it and call it shit all day long, but driving is a privilege. One that requires you to adhere to certain obligations and restrictions to participate in. It doesn’t matter how much you pay in taxes (why do taxes alway come up with self-centered people), you have to follow the rules as they exist. You can campaign for change, but the amount you have payed in taxes does not guarantee you will be satisfied with the result.

    Also, where I’m from is immaterial, however I was born and raised in Cleveland. Although I have lived the last fifteen years around the US, Italy, and South Korea, returning to my true home just last summer. I certainly don’t trivialize the urban-sprawl and white-flight that contributed to the worship of car culture in the US. But driving is not an absolute necessity, and millions of Americans get by with public transportation daily, including me.

    And do you have evidence to suggest that red-light cameras are ineffective? Because I have seen studies that show a significant drop in collision rates at intersections with known red-light cameras.

  16. 16
    Nancy Collins

    I’ve had mixed feeling about the use of cameras.

    On the one hand, if I drive within the posted limits I should have nothing to worry about.

    However, I have concerns with relying on machines and technology. I think I would be more comfortable if I knew that the machines were tested for accuracy on a regular basis.

    I really hate them when I get one of their notices in the mail!

  17. 17
    Jeff Hess

    Shalom Mano,

    We only demand strict enforcement of laws we believe we are unlikely to break.

    I came to this realization years ago in a discussion with a rabid advocate of the death penalty. When I asked him if a man who discovers his wife in bed with another man should be given the death penalty if he kills that man, the advocate said, “Of course not.”

    Another example would be to ask people if they thought the theft of office supplies should be treated the same as shoplifting. They will be all for prosecuting shoplifters, but not the person who takes a box of pens or a few pads of paper home from the office.

    B’shalom,

    Jeff

  18. 18
    Mary Jo

    Hey Jeff, those sticky notes and colored thumbtacks are really cool. And I love the purple highlighters. Leave my office pilfering alone!

  19. 19
    Jack

    Sam, you obviously haven’t heard my “life comes in three flavors” speech.

    1) It’s your fault and it’s your problem.
    2) It’s not your fault and it’s not your problem.
    3) It’s not your fault, but IT IS your problem.

    Not wanting to change your driving habits to ensure that you don’t get in an accident and also don’t get fined for breaking a law indicates to me that you think that none of above applies to you.

    If your goal is just to get to work, then be prepared for damage, possible injury and/or fines.

    If your goal is to get to work without damage, injury and/or fines, change your driving habits to ensure these goals.

  20. 20
    John

    Acc­ording to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 22 percent of all traffic accidents in the United States are caused by drivers running red lights. Every year, these accidents kill some 800 people and rack up an estimated $7 billio­n dollars in property damage, medical bills, lost productivity and insurance hikes.

  21. 21
    Imran

    John,
    In the states running through red lights is aweful. However, the offense is far greater in places like Dubai. They take it very seriously. In UK where I live it is a warning or penalty. Not surprisingly speeding and going through red lights in Dubai is very rare. Perhaps stiffer rules should be applied globally and this could save many lifes!

    Imran from
    An office supplies company with may drivers.

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