Traffic Enforcement Cameras

Bad Usage of Technology and Misinformation to the Public Regarding Their Benefits

April 4, 2009

The Montana Legislature is considering a bill to ban traffic cameras as a source of citations. This is evidence that the state legislature can, at least occasionally, consider something good.

Traffic cameras take pictures of vehicles showing their license plates when the automated system detects a violation. The most common violations cameras are used for are speeding and running red lights. However, these could potentially be used for other violations, such as failing to yield to a pedestrian at a crosswalk, illegal lane changes, illegal left turns, illegal U-turns, etc.

The person the license plate is registered to then gets a ticket in the mail. Lucky them.

Why Banning Traffic Cameras Is Good

Prohibiting these cameras is a good thing because the camera has a high probability of picturing the wrong vehicle when it is triggered. There is also a probability that multiple vehicles will be in the photo, making it difficult to correctly ascertain which vehicle actually committed the violation (if a violation was, in fact, committed).

These cameras also violate the accused rights to face his or her accuser. The camera cannot come into the court, take the oath, take the stand, and then, under oath, state that it witnessed that driver operating the pictured vehicle commit the violation.

These cameras are only a case for those who support the guilty until proven innocent court system. The camera says you're guilty, so there. Go directly to jail, do not pass go, do not collect $200.

Also, there are a number of ways that the cameras can be fooled. Students in Maryland have developed a good technique for spoofing these cameras to get other drivers ticketed. People in Chian have also figured out how to avoid getting themselves ticketed by these automated systems. These stories are of enough general interest that these and similar stories have made the front page of Digg at times. These methods for bypassing the camera-citation are pretty simple to accomplish for anyone with a digital camera and a $100 ink-jet printer, though a pair of scissors and a laminater would be helpful.

Why This Is a Bad Law

On the other hand, for anyone who values freedom, a law like this is a bad idea.

Not because I think that these cameras should be installed, but because the concept of these cameras is such a clear violation of rights of individuals that no intelligent person would consider them as a good idea.

Cameras like these may have a legitimate use: as additional evidence against drivers legitimately cited by an officer. When an officer pulls a driver over for a violation, you usually get a case of "he said :: she said," where it's the driver's word against the officer's. This can put the court in a difficult place, if the court sides with the officer, they get people yelling about corrupt systems and oppression, f the court sides with the driver, they weaken the authority and credibility of local law enforcement. However, if there is, in addition to the ticketing officer's eye-witness statement, a photo by an automated system confirming the violation and corroborating the officer's statement, this provides support for the case against the driver. On the other hand, the if there is not a photo from an automated system in an area where they are installed, then this provides support for the driver's innocence.

The Unfounded Case For

The case for use of these cameras is that the cameras will improve safety and reduce property damages. On the news coverage and in the presentations the manufacturers give to support the installation of these cameras you see a lot of high-speed, violent accidents. Supposedly, if these cameras are installed, there will not ba accidents any more. What nobody bothers to explain is how this can happen, let alone how it does happen.

The cameras sit there passively and take pictures occasionally. They do not apply the brakes in vehicles to slow them down when they are moving at excessive speed, or to bring the to a stop when a light is red. If someone is speeding or is running a red light, the camera just takes a picture, then the person that license plate is registered to gets a ticket in the mail.

The only way that these cameras can improve safety is through fear of Big Brother. Whenever the populace fears the government or law enforcement, there is a problem. The use of cameras like these as the sole basis for ticketing is evidence of that problem cropping up in numerous areas.

The Legitimate Case For

Undoubtedly these cameras increase overall revenues in the districts in which they are implemented. Apparently as much as $224,000,000 for the Washington, D.C. area! People argue that these cameras are not put in place as a revenue generating tool, and that either there is no revenue (could someone explain that, please) or that the revenue is minimal or inconsequential. How much do these systems cost that $224 million is inconsequential?

Proponents of these camera systems tout the improved safety on the roads and the decreases in property damage or loss and insurance claims. However, these claims do not coincide with wither independent research or logic.

The only real arguments for these cameras is oppression of the populace or generation of revenues for the district in question.

The Case Against

The case against installation of these traffic monitoring cameras is many fold, many points have been brought up above. Here's a good synopsis of the against installation of traffic enforcing cameras. The Telegraph even reports that the government in the UK knew their traffic enforcement camera research was flawed, which generated friction and debate in the UK over the installation of these devices. However, this does not give the complete picture.

A 2007 report from the Virginia Department of Transportation found an increase in accidents where enforcement cameras were installed, additional studies (referenced from University of South Florida College of Public Health, Schneier on Security, and Ride Lust) indicate increases in damages, injuries, and collisions due to the cameras, not an increase in safety. Links to the originals of a number of these studies are available linked from the Schaumburg Freedom Coalition article on traffic enforcement cameras.

The supposed safety argument brought forward by the manufacturers of these systems and the politicians that want to implement them doesn't seem to hold water. Study after study shows that rather than an increase in safety and a decrease in losses, there is a decrease in safety and an increase in losses.

Beyond this, however, is another concern. Now, I like to be trusting, but any intelligent person needs to consider this as well: what else are/can/will these cameras be used for? When will it start. What is being done to prevent misuse of cameras? If the cameras are in place, what regulates their use? Who's responsible? Who's accountable? How do other uses need to be documented and publicized? Before these cameras are installed anywhere, these issues really need to be addressed.

If the people of Montana are fortunate, this legislation will pass the State House and the State Senate, and be signed by Governor Schweitzer without the loophole put in place by State Senator Brueggeman. In arguing for this loophole, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle reports, the city of Bozeman claims to have done it's due diligence. However, it looks like they failed to use supported facts or to weigh the case against when performing their due diligence...