Thursday, January 12, 2006

They Still Don't Get the Picture

Despite many concerns raised by privacy advocates, red-light cameras seem to be popping up everywhere in the Metroplex. They were pioneered here in Garland, and several other suburbs followed suit. Now, Dallas is looking to install them pretty soon, and TxDOT (the Texas Department of Transportation) is seeking a legal opinion on whether or not they can be installed along state highways.

I've stated my opinion on this subject a few times already, but let me distill it down to a few main points:
  • It's all about revenue, not safety. If nothing else, these cameras have proven to be a cash cow. According to this article,
    Since 2003, Garland has taken in more than $2.5 million in fines, [Garland "Safe Light" program employee Teresa] Pollock said. Garland pays about $28,000 a month to ACS State and Local Solutions, which operates the cameras. The rest of the money goes into a public safety fund, she said.
    Among other things, the city is evidently planning on using some of the camera revenue to buy a police helicopter, which seems to stray from the originally-stated mission to pour such revenue back into traffic-safety improvements. As the letter-writer points out, what will happen if the cameras are later outlawed, if the city has poured a bunch of this revenue into other things?

  • There's too much potential for abuse. Where do I begin here? Am I being too far out in left field to expect that some city, noticing that its coffers are getting smaller, might decrease the length of yellow lights to raise more cash? It also seems seedy that law enforcement (even though, admittedly, the tickets are civil citations) is being ceded to private, outside companies. I think Ernie Brown nailed it today when he said that the cities should be the ones doing this particular task themselves rather than outsourcing it. If nothing else, it comes down to a matter of trust:
    "The question is the extent to which the government is allowed to use this technology against people," says Eric Skrum, a spokesman for the National Motorists Association (NMA) in Waunakee, Wisc. "All these things start off in the guise of safety, but in reality have the potential of being used against you as a revenue generator."

    Indeed, the NMA says the cameras put an undue burden on motorists' presumed guilt rather than common-sense solutions, such as increasing the duration of yellow lights. The organization has put out a $10,000 reward for communities that solve red-light problems through engineering rather than enforcement. (source)
    I totally agree; who among us really trusts the government to err on the side of caution when revenue enhancement is a possibility? Also, it's not often that I agree with the ACLU on anything, but I do here:
    "There's an equal-protection problem," said Scott Henson, director of the organization's Texas Police Accountability Project. "You might run a red light [with a camera] and get a $75 civil fine. I can run one [with a police officer] and get a $200 criminal violation."
    He's got a point there...

  • In fact, the cameras might actually decrease safety. I might have a bit of a bias against these cameras because of a personal experience--namely, my wreck from nearly two years ago. In that instance, I had a light turn yellow as I approached the intersection, but I decided to go ahead and stop because 1) I knew that Garland had some red-light cameras in use (though I didn't know at the time that each one has specific signs announcing its presence) and 2) there appeared to be nobody behind me...which didn't stop an uninsured soccer mom from plowing into me a short time later. (Now, I might well be likely to run the light if someone's behind me, because $75 is much less than my insurance deductible, which I had to pay to fix my car because said soccer mom eluded everyone for a year. But why should I have to make the choice between doing what's safe and doing what's legal?)

    Don't get me wrong--I understand that accidents involving drivers who run red lights can be horrible for all involved. Garland has reported a 21 percent decrease in red-light violations since installing the cameras, but what I want to read is the corresponding statistics for the number of rear-end collisions at those same intersections, because in places where the cameras have been installed in the past, such collisions have actually increased. I'm also concerned about this one intersection in Rowlett that just got a camera; it's not even a major street, just a residential side street, and it's in the middle of a 20-mph school zone. What happens if the light turns yellow while you're plodding along at 20 miles an hour and you can't even make it through the intersection before it turns red?
I haven't seen anything yet that would make me deviate from my original thought that this is just a bad, bad idea. Maybe the Legislature will see the light in 2007 and vote to ban them...and in the meantime, I'll be looking over my shoulder for errant soccer moms whenever the light turns yellow.

Blowing out the candles: Happy birthday to my protege Aaron (I enjoyed the cake), and also, a few more candles for Doug, a onetime protege as well, now getting ready to tie the knot in a few months. (Birthday fun facts: Aaron and Doug share their special day with founder Jeff Bezos, actress Kirstie Alley, and two radio hosts: Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh.)

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