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Saturday, October 1, 2022
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Speed cameras making a comeback? How to win hearts and minds

Among the many things we didn’t realize counted as infrastructure, we recently learned that the Biden administration’s infrastructure law has money for local governments to install speed cameras.

Oh joy, you probably thought, speed cameras.

It’s part of a new initiative by the U.S. Department of Transportation to reverse the rise in traffic fatalities. Why, when every automotive model year brings new safety systems, are we seeing increasing numbers of people die? Because speed kills, just as you were always told — it was a factor in a quarter of road deaths in 2019, and traffic fatalities have gotten worse and worse since then. Americans are driving faster, a habit formed during pandemic lockdown. (And, just maybe, we are driving angrier and more selfishly in these angry times.)

There’s a lot of research supporting the claim that photo-radar red-light and speed cameras are effective at saving lives. An aggregate of such studies indicates they reduce speeds by up to 15%, have reduced the number of speeding vehicles by up to 65%, have reduced accidents 8% to 49%, and have reduced fatal or serious-injury accidents 11%-44%. 

But. The cameras are ever-controversial.

A survey last month commissioned by Erie Insurance (insurance companies like the technology) found that half of respondents are in favor of them, while a third are opposed. Yet half also think cameras are an invasion of privacy. And 61% think a speed camera should not issue a ticket unless a driver exceeds the posted limit by at least 10 mph.

The main accusation you always hear from critics (and that you might have yourself): More than half those surveyed said the cameras’ primary purpose is simply to generate revenue.

Returning to the “speed kills” maxim for a moment: 60% of the drivers surveyed admitted they had driven at least 20 mph over posted limits during Covid. (If that means over 90 mph on a highway posted at 70, do you suppose 60% of the public would be particularly skilled at that? And 45 in a 25 isn’t a good look either.)

So to recap: We admit we’re excessively speeding. We realize it’s a problem that cameras can address. But we feel oppressed by them and believe they’re mostly intended to fleece us.

Under surveillance

True, there’s something about the cold impersonal nature of a speed camera that rankles — you’re driving along, then a couple of weeks later you get a ticket in the mail with a photo of yourself looking unassumingly stupid behind the wheel. It feels like Big Brother. Never mind we’re already under constant surveillance by license plate readers and CCTV. Elon Musk recently seemed surprised and annoyed to learn that public data from the FAA could be used to track his private jet. Which is rich, coming from a guy whose company tracks what its customers do behind the wheel. Break wind in your car, and Tesla HQ can probably sniff it out.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, in arguing for speed cameras, reasons that 174 communities currently use them. But IIHS doesn’t mention that a decade ago, 540 communities gave them a try, before hundreds dropped them. Residents hated the things, plus sometimes the technology made mistakes. IIHS says legislation permitting cameras is under consideration anew in eight states — yet another eight states have banned them. In Missouri, they were ruled an unconstitutional invasion of privacy by the state Supreme Court, and a judge in Ohio called them a “scam.”

In other words, a lot of people can relate to this Aussie who went to great lengths to flip off a speed camera.

An Autoblog story eight years ago outlines some of the rotten government behavior that soured people on the technology: Cameras hidden by foliage, some fiddling with the duration of yellow lights in Chicago to boost camera revenue by millions of dollars, and a refusal by Nassau County, N.Y., to reveal camera locations. Then there’s the Brooklyn camera parked at an abrupt speed-zone change that issued 1,551 tickets in one day. Said an AAA spokesman: “When it’s done right, lives are saved. When it’s not, people feel very angry about it.”

This camera-animosity roundup from four years ago quotes Paul Fisher, a University of Arizona traffic researcher: “People seem to really not like red-light cameras. The referendums almost always lead to removal.”

The kind of camera matters

If this new DOT money triggers a comeback for cameras, then local governments need to do it right this time. Let’s make some distinctions.

  • School-zone cameras are placed in a location that should be sacrosanct to any motorist. You’d think flashing lights would be enough, but no. Schools are places where cold-hearted ticketing robots are justified. 
  • Red-light cameras: More than 50% of fatal or injury crashes occur at intersections. In 2019, 846 people were killed and 143,000 people injured in crashes that involved red-light running. There are other ways to reduce such accidents, by fundamentally redesigning poorly configured intersections or even converting them to roundabouts. But let’s admit there’s an argument for photo-radar cameras at intersections.
  • Speed cameras: These devices, when not located at intersections, seem the most like money-grubbing speed traps. Worse are the mobile ones on trailers or trucks. If they’re being moved around, that feels like a “gotcha” factor is at work.

Years ago, I was mailed a ticket after a visit to Tucson. It was mid-afternoon, on a divided four-lane through the desert that had a 45 mph posted limit but was clearly built for 60. The boulevard was otherwise devoid of traffic. I was enjoying a sunny day and didn’t notice the “Photo Enforcement Zone” sign. A traffic cop clocking a dumb tourist with an out-of-state license might have exercised judgment about road conditions and let me go with a warning and a warm feeling about Tucson’s finest. But machines don’t exercise judgment or cut us any slack, which surely adds to their unpopularity. Tucson residents clearly disliked them more than this visitor did, because in 2015 they voted by a 2-to-1 ratio to ban the cameras.

Now, dashboard technology in today’s cars constantly apprises us of the posted limit, and will even warn us of speed cameras ahead. So perhaps the cameras won’t be so pesky this time around.

All the big multi-lettered safety organizations (IIHS, AAA, GHSA, etc.) have banded together to create this checklist for governments to consult when considering speed cameras. It has some good ideas, many of them attempting to address the technology’s PR problem — of which they’re clearly aware. The Governors Highway Safety Association even addresses the issue head-on: “Critics of speed and red light cameras argue they exist to make money for law enforcement agencies and/or the technology providers. However, the objective is to deter violators, not to catch them.”

To which the public says, yeah, right, maybe.

Changing hearts and minds

So here’s an idea — a dare, really — for all you mayors and city councils and DOTs out there to ponder (probably in horror).

Ask yourselves: Are speed cameras really about public safety? Is their objective really NOT to make money? Then there’s an easy way to prove it. Instead of lining city coffers with camera fines, do this instead:

Give the money to charity.

That’s right. Every dime. Keep your hands off it. Don’t spend speed-camera profits on paramilitary cop hardware, or to hire more police (shouldn’t speed cameras free up officers?). Don’t use the cash to fatten the general fund. You say you need to repair potholes with that money? You already had budget for that. This is new revenue, don’t be greedy.

Send the money to your own community’s United Way.

Only this would demonstrate that your intentions are pure. Only this might quiet the critics. You’ll have clean hands and credibility when you tell your citizens this is purely about public safety and the public good.

And best of all, you’ll save lives and prevent injuries. Compared to that, losing a little ticket revenue is chump change.

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