"When the choice comes down to safety versus the money, safety doesn’t stand a chance."
When the cameras go up, the money comes in: shorten the yellow to boost the take.
BY PATRICK BEDARD
Car and Driver Magazine
This just in: A red-light camera on Broadway Street in Knoxville, Tennessee, has suffered fatal gunshot wounds. Three bullets struck the device, destroying the lens and rendering it inop. Clifford E. Clark III, 47, holed up in a nearby minivan, was arrested and charged with felony vandalism.
Not to put words in Clark’s mouth, but what I think he was trying to say with his .30-06 Ruger was that he had withdrawn his consent to be governed by robots. You may remember that our founding fathers had a very clear idea of the source of government legitimacy. The Declaration of Independence says that “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The political theory here is that there is no moral authority to use state power unless the people say there is.
One guy expressing disapproval of a red-light camera won’t curb government zeal for robot surveillance, but it’s a start.
No single speeder killed the double-nickel, either, but when Mr. and Mrs. America pushed back good and hard with their throttle feet, voting for speeds above 55, Congress finally came around. Yes, we lived through 21 years of radar-gun tyranny until the 1995 repeal, but it wasn’t letters from their constituents that wised up the pols (although I personally ran up a handsome postage bill). It was full-frontal disobedience on the interstates.
Civil disobedience won’t be the tool that brings down red-light cameras, however. Robot ticketing lets the government use mass production to divide and conquer a rebellion. No messy police confrontations; every insurgent simply finds a ticket with his name on it in his mailbox.
Let’s be clear about the tyranny here. This is not about running red lights. Camera enforcement is a revenuing scheme that depends on an end run around the fundamental American principle of innocent until proven guilty. The glassy-eyed accuser is a robot, and it’s not subject to cross examination. Moreover, it’s a robot employed by a for-profit business that makes its profits from guilty verdicts. It makes nothing on innocent verdicts. Such an obvious conflict of interest should bring out all the rifles.
The government dresses up this tyranny and sells it as a safety measure. It’s presented as a high-tech way to stop red-light running, never mind that no statistics are offered to support the notion that red-light running has become a menace. In fact, the federal fatality database doesn’t have a category for signal-controlled intersections. There’s no smoke here.
But there is growing frustration. Consider the case of Tim Alstrom of Aberdeen, Washington, as reported in theNewspaper.com. He opened an envelope last summer to find a demand for payment of $101. Nearby Seattle had convicted him of running a red light at 3:21 a.m. on June 29, citing camera evidence as proof. He was at home asleep at the time, and the car in the photo wasn’t his, but never mind. It gets worse. Seattle, like most camera jurisdictions, will dismiss a camera ticket under one condition only: The car owner has to rat out the actual driver, who must pay the $101.
Students: Test your knowledge. Red-light cameras are about (a) the money, (b) the money, (c) THE MONEY.
Alstrom had no way of knowing who was piloting somebody else’s car. His only defense was to drive four hours to municipal court in Seattle. The photo, taken by a camera of American Traffic Solutions, was blurred. Probably the robot reader picked the wrong pixels. If there’s a humanoid involved, he rubber-stamped the bad guess. Either way, there’s no penalty for false accusations, but the cash register rings every time an innocent owner cuts his losses by writing a check rather than taking a day off work to fight for justice.
This tyranny will fall as research builds a slam-dunk case that it’s a safety sham. A report last year, funded by the Federal Highway Administration and the Virginia Department of Transportation, said that “cameras were associated with an increase in total crashes.” Six Virginia cities with red-light cameras were studied. Injury crashes were down five percent in one and up from six to 89 percent in the others. Rear-enders were up in all the cities, by 136 percent in Falls Church and 139 percent in Arlington.
Crashes were up in Stockton, California, too, from an average of 14 per year before to more than 20 per year in the 2004–6 period, after red-light cameras were installed. Same story in Seattle, where crashes rose from 4.94 per intersection before to 5.25 after cameras were installed at four intersections. Untroubled by the facts, Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske declared complete victory and proposed camera coverage on 14 more intersections.
If red-light cameras don’t reduce violations, what does? The length of the yellow light is the most important factor, says the Texas Transportation Institute, which studied 181 intersection approaches over three years. Adding one second to the Institute of Transportation Engineers formula cut violations by 53 percent. Conversely, shortening the ITE time by one second hiked violations by 110 percent.
This dovetails neatly with a report by the California state auditor that studied camera results in eight of that state’s cities. Overall, 77 percent of the violations occur in the first second of the red.
As good as it might be for safety, lengthening the yellow is bad for (a), (b), and (c) above. San Diego saw a $2 million increase in revenues in the first year after trimming its “grace period” to 0.1 second versus 0.3 to 0.5 before. In Dallas, 7 of the 10 highest revenue-raising cameras have yellows shorter than the minimum recommendation of the Texas Department of Transportation.
When the choice comes down to safety versus the money, safety doesn’t stand a chance.
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