Of the many things that we didn’t realize were 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 US Department of Transportation to stem the rise in road deaths. Why do we see more and more people die as each car model year introduces new safety systems? Because speed kills, as you’ve always been told – it was a factor in a quarter of road deaths in 2019, and road deaths have gotten worse and worse since then. Americans drive faster, a habit that emerged during the pandemic lockdown. (And maybe in these angry times we drive angrier and more selfishly.)
There is a lot of research to support the claim that photo-radar red light and speed cameras are effective in saving lives. An aggregate of such studies indicates that they reduced speed by up to 15%, reduced the number of speeding vehicles by up to 65%, reduced the number of crashes by 8% to 49%, and reduced the number of fatal or seriously injured crashes 11%-44%.
But. The cameras are always controversial.
A survey last month commissioned by Erie Insurance (insurance companies love the technology) found that half of respondents are in favor of it, while a third are against it. Yet half of them also consider cameras an invasion of privacy. And 61% believe a speed camera should not issue a ticket unless a driver exceeds the posted limit by at least 10 mph.
The top accusation you always hear from critics (and you may have yourself): More than half of those surveyed said the cameras’ primary purpose is simply to generate revenue.
Going back to the “speed kills” maxim: 60% of drivers surveyed admitted to having driven at least 20 mph over the stated limits during Covid. (If that means over 90 mph on a 70-speed highway, do you think 60% of the public would be particularly adept at that? And 45 in a 25 isn’t a good impression, either.)
So to summarize, we admit that we are speeding. We realize it’s a problem that cameras can tackle. But we feel oppressed by them and think they are mainly meant to placate us.
Under the control
Admittedly, there’s something about the cold impersonal nature of a speed camera that crackles: you drive by, and a few weeks later you get a ticket in the mail with a photo of yourself looking modestly dumb behind the wheel. It feels like Big Brother. It doesn’t matter that we are already constantly being watched 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. That’s rich, coming from a guy whose company keeps track of what his customers are doing behind the wheel. Break the wind into your car and Tesla headquarters can probably smell it.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, in the speed camera argument, argues that 174 communities currently use them. But IIHS doesn’t mention that ten years ago 540 communities tried them, before hundreds dropped them. Residents hated things, and sometimes technology made mistakes. IIHS says legislation allowing cameras is being reconsidered in eight states — another eight states have banned them. In Missouri, they were ruled an unconstitutional invasion of privacy by the state Supreme Court, and an Ohio judge called them a “scam.”
In other words, many people can empathize with this Aussie who went to great lengths to knock out a speed camera.
An Autoblog story from eight years ago outlines some of the rotten government behavior that has soured people with technology: cameras hidden by foliage, some fiddling with the duration of yellow lights in Chicago to boost camera revenues by millions of dollars, and a refusal by Nassau County, NY, to reveal camera locations. Then there’s the Brooklyn camera parked at an abrupt speed zone change that yielded 1,551 tickets in one day. An AAA spokesperson said: “If done right, lives are saved. If not, people get very angry about it.”
This camera hostility from four years ago is quoted by Paul Fisher, a traffic researcher at the University of Arizona: “People really don’t seem to like red light cameras. The referendums almost always lead to removals.”
The type of camera matters
If this new DOT money triggers a comeback for cameras, then local governments need to get it right this time. Let’s make some distinction.
- Cameras in the school zone are placed in a location that should be sacred to every motorist. You’d think flashing lights would be enough, but no. Schools are places where cold-blooded ticketing robots go. Red light cameras: More than 50% of fatal or injury crashes occur at intersections. In 2019, 846 people died and 143,000 were injured in red light crashes. There are other ways to reduce such accidents, by fundamentally redesigning poorly configured intersections or even converting them into roundabouts. But let’s admit there’s an argument for photo-radar cameras at intersections. Speed Cameras: These devices, when not placed at intersections, are most like money-guzzling speed traps. Worse are the mobile ones on trailers or trucks. When they are moved, it feels like there is a “gotcha” factor at work.
Years ago I was sent a card after a visit to Tucson. It was mid-afternoon, on a divided dual carriageway through the desert with a 45 mph limit, but 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 ticketing a stupid tourist with a foreign driver’s license might have made judgments about the road condition and let me go with a warning and a warm feeling about Tucson’s best. But machines don’t exercise judgment and don’t cut us in, which certainly adds to their unpopularity. Tucson residents clearly disliked them more than this visitor, as in 2015, they voted in a 2-to-1 ratio to ban the cameras.
The dashboard technology in today’s cars keeps us constantly informed of the indicated limit and will even warn us of speed cameras ahead. So maybe the cameras aren’t so annoying this time around.
All the major multi-letter safety organizations (IIHS, AAA, GHSA, etc.) have teamed up to create this checklist for governments to refer to when considering speed cameras. It has some great ideas, many of which are trying to tackle the PR problem of the technology – which they are clearly aware of. In fact, the Governors Highway Safety Association is addressing the issue directly: “Critics of speed and red light cameras claim they exist to monetize law enforcement agencies and/or the technology providers. However, the aim is to deter offenders, not to catch them.”
To which the audience says yes, maybe.
Changing hearts and minds
So here’s an idea – really a challenge – for all the mayors and city councils and DOTs out there to ponder (probably with horror).
Ask yourself: are speed cameras really about public safety? Is their goal really NOT to make money? Then there’s an easy way to prove it. Instead of filling the city coffers with camera fines, do this:
Donate the money to a good cause.
That’s right. Every cent. Keep your hands off it. Don’t spend the profits from speed cameras on paramilitary police hardware, or to hire more police (shouldn’t speed cameras release cops?). Do not use the money to fatten the general fund. You say you have to fix potholes with that money? You already had a budget for that. This is new income, don’t be greedy.
Send the money to the United Way of your own community.
This alone would show that your intentions are pure. Only this could silence the critics. You will have clean hands and credibility if you tell your citizens that this is purely about public safety and the public interest.
And best of all, you save lives and prevent injuries. In comparison, losing a bit of ticket revenue is a downer.