More on red light and speed cameras

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.


  1. Scott says

    I think the reason police generally don’t stop people who are speeding 5 mph over the limit is because of the variables: accuracy of radar or laser speed detection devices, accuracy of car speedometers (my VW’s read 5 mph faster than my GPS says) and the possiblity of under or over-inflated tires. One thing I’m surprised you haven’t mentioned is the recent ruling by the Ohio Supreme Court that allows police to issue tickets based on their observed estimates of a driver’s speed, In other words, police don’t need lasers or radar anymore, they can just guess.

    Re: TV news, I majored in journalism in college and was a newspaper reporter and photographer for a while, and TV news, frankly, disgusts me. There isn’t room here for me to fully express my contempt for it.

  2. says

    Regarding young people and news: I consume zero TV news (with the exception of comedy central’s fake news) and rarely hold a newspaper in print. Instead of subscribing in print, I subscribe to a variety of online news sources (mostly the online outlets of newspapers, magazines, npr (and quite a few academics’ blogs)).

    I suppose my point is that, as a young person (still under 30, that counts, right?) I don’t trust my network to supply news, I have deliberately set up my network to supply news.

    It may be, however, that other people my age are dependent on me to share important news, but I wouldn’t be sure if that phenomenon is new with the technology, or if there has always been a category of adult that just expects important news to find their way to them whether they seek it or not.

  3. says

    My hypothesis is that most young people are sp concerned about what’s happening in their own little lives that they really don’t care about the “trivialities” of day to day world events.

  4. Jared says

    “Oh, young people these days. What are they up to now? Do they only care about themselves? What does this say about where our country is going? Details at 10.” -- About half of non-crime related TV “news” stories.

  5. says

    I really like your idea of the law being less impartial due to the use of cameras. I had never thought of that at all.

    At the same time though, I recently got a ticket for a red light by a camera; and to my surprise, it was DOUBLE the cost of the citation had I received it from a cop. I don’t mind that I’m getting the ticket, but it costing more to recoup for the investment is a bit much.

  6. says

    I happen to be a relatively cautious driver, and I like the idea of placing more cameras around because it encourages drivers to consistently maintain safe driving practices. Plenty of people take advantage of the absence of police officers to speed and run red lights, and if there were more cameras around those people might be more careful all the time, improving everyone’s safety.

    I have no desire to speed even if I knew there were no officers to catch me, but after living in New Jersey and California where people drive aggressively I consistently feel the pressure to drive faster. If cameras could be set up to consistently measure the speed of all cars, everyone might be encouraged to drive at the same safe speed (whether or not the posted speed limits are appropriate is another question).

  7. says

    I recently came across a news item that said that a Swedish driver was clocked going at 290 kmph (180 mph) in a 120 kmph (75 mph) zone in Switzerland.

    What I found interesting was that under Swiss law the amount of the fine depends not only on the speed but also on the wealth of driver! This driver could face a $1 million fine. In January someone was fined $290,000, which was the previous record.

  8. Dan says

    Adjusting the rate of the fine to the income of the driver actually makes a hell of a lot of sense! If you can afford to drive a Mercedes, you can probably afford to pay a $150 speeding ticket every month or two and keep driving 20 over the limit. On the other hand a college student gets really hurt by that same ticket, maybe even a little more than he should. Make that guy driving a Mercedes pay a $1500 ticket and I bet he’ll actually pay attention to his speed for at least a little while.

  9. says

    Most cities such as here in Scottsdale Arizona, don’t send real citations to corporations. They send weakly worded notices that can be safely thrown in the trash. Unlike the grim tone of a citation, which orders the motorist to pay a fine or appear in court on a certain date, the violation notices let the company know up front: ” ‘This is not a Summons to Appear. There is no fine associated with this Notice.

  10. says

    If municipalities are installing red light cameras for traffic safety, then I have no problem with it--if they follow safety rules and the law. If they are installing them to increase revenue, and they enhance those efforts by shortening the timing of the yellow light, then I have a big problem with it. Ascertaining their true motives is difficult, although someone usually “leaks out” the real reason--whatever it may be.

  11. says

    If camera’s going to monitor the speeding vehicle is a good option but we should solve the speedometer reading which was varies one manufacture to other, old model to new models else it’s going to be a complicated problem may be people going to oppose it.

  12. says

    Hi, great blog and I have a couple of comments.
    Firstly on the subject of young people, yes the majority only care about themselves, now that may be generalising as we only hear of the bad things these people do but the driving habits of these people alone are deplorable. You see them everyday slow down for a speed camera and then drive off…

    Secondly regarding speeding I don’t think you can stop the issue unless speed camera’s are everywhere, which as you say would be too expensive. I general I think that more money should be put into policing to resolve a lot of today’s issue.

    Thanks again, great blog.

  13. says

    Cameras isn’t it a good solution, cause we can’t track the vehicle each & every place using those then what we can do, make it mandate that every automaker should automatically record every vehicles speeding history & store in global database which can be accessible by common public & law officials

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