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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