The previous post on this topic resulted in such interesting discussions that I want to expand on this topic in a new post.
I actually agree with some of the criticisms that were made about a camera-based system to enforce traffic laws on speeding and running red lights. But my point is that while the police-based system is fundamentally flawed and cannot be made fair and consistent and widespread because of the enormous costs that would need be incurred, the camera-based system as currently implemented is only technically flawed. It should be easy to improve it by purely technical fixes that can also be easily monitored to ensure that the devices work accurately and provide reasonable opportunities for compliance.
For example, it should be easy to calculate how long a yellow light should last on a road that has a specific speed limit in order to provide a stopping distance that does not require slamming on the brakes and risking rear-end collisions. As commenter James pointed out, there is really no excuse for rear-ending someone but having consistent and reasonable yellow light times would reduce the risk of such collisions. These times should be public information so that if people suspect local governments are fiddling with them to raise revenues, they can be easily checked by any person with a stopwatch. In fact, the commenters who expressed reservations about the camera system also suggested ways in which their objections could be met.
The police-based system is fundamentally flawed because it cannot help but be arbitrary and inconsistent. Your odds of getting caught are small (unless you are a blatant and reckless offender) and presumably because of that the fines are set high to act as a deterrent, although that does not seem to be effective. What the high fines do is make the people who do get caught very angry since they feel that exceeding the speed limit is not serious enough to warrant a huge fine, and they think that others are getting away with it.
People are very sensitive to the issue of fairness. If you drive on a highway, you see almost everyone exceeding the posted speed limits and yet police will pick out one hapless person to stop and fine for reasons that are not always clear. That person will almost always feel aggrieved because he or she knows that it was just bad luck that they were the ones who got caught, while others who zipped by even faster seemed to escape.
The camera-based system, while it may have flaws, has the great advantage that it is impartial, consistent, and will catch each and every violator and not just the ‘unlucky’ ones. As a result, I feel that people, in the long run, will like it because of its fairness and impartiality. Also fines can be made much smaller than they are now because the certainty that one will get caught and fined should be sufficient deterrent to encourage people to follow the law, and thus make the roads safer.
Commenter John pointed out that the speed at which traffic can flow safely may be greater than the posted speed limits. Police have the flexibility to allow for this while cameras do not. So in places where speed cameras are known to exist, he says that one has the odd situation that traffic flows at the higher speed, slows down at the places where people know there are speed cameras, and then speeds up again.
This highlights another odd feature of the existing system which is that speed limits in the US are a secret. Oh sure, signs are posted all over the place but nobody takes them seriously. The only thing we know for sure is that the posted limits are not the real ones. When it comes to speed limits, it seems like people feel that violating the law by just a little should be excused, although people do not allow such laxity with respect to other crimes such as stealing and will think that the arrest of someone for stealing a toothbrush is appropriate. Imagine the outcry if police started fining people for going 28 in a 25 mph zone. Anyone who has driven at exactly the posted speed in city streets knows that pretty soon a caravan of irate drivers will form behind them. The only time when the real speed limit comes close to the posted limit seems to be in school zones with the flashing warning lights, and it is interesting that it is only in those zones that people tend to stick closely to the limit.
It seems like the ‘real’ speed limit is roughly 5-10 miles per hour more than the posted limits but no authority wants to publicly acknowledge this and so drivers play a guessing game with the police as to what the real limits are. When I drive on the highway, I consistently go at about 5 mph greater than the posted limits and even though I have seen police clocking me, they have never pulled me over even once.
Because of this guessing game that everyone has internalized I suspect that even if the traffic experts who set speed limits think that 40 mph is a safe speed for a stretch of road, they post it as 35 mph, so that then drivers will travel at about 40 mph. And the police go along with this charade. It is quite bizarre, when you think about it.
If cameras replace police, perhaps we can start posting the actual speed limits and this silly guessing game can stop. If the camera measuring devices have (say) a 10% uncertainty, then this should also be public information and taken into account, so that drivers know that they can go up to 44 mph in a 40 mph zone or up to 71 mph on a 65 mph highway, but anything higher than the upper limit will result in an automatic and certain ticket.
POST SCRIPT: Who watches TV news?
Readers of this blog know that I have nothing but contempt for what passes for TV ‘news’, because most of it is not really news at all but endless blathering by uninformed people. They still seem to draw viewers but it seems that what audience they do have consists mostly of old people. The average age for Fox News is 65, CNN is 63, and MSNBC’s is a sprightly 59. If I am not mistaken, this is also the decreasing order of audience size.
Along with declining readership of newspapers, this adds support to my suspicions that young people do not actively seek the news anymore. Instead they are so plugged in to all manner of networks of information and interaction that they are confident that important news will find them.