Freedom for Sale In the Red Light District
If patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, then death is the only refuge of a camera-craving road safety campaigner. As far as these well-meaning advocates are concerned, if a single roadside surveillance device saves a single life, then it’s fully justified. Never mind scientific distinctions between “speeding” and “inappropriate speed.” Never mind government studies that place red light running near the very bottom of the list of accident causation. Never mind concerns about the erosion of personal privacy. One life trumps all.
In fact, when it comes to red light cameras, it’s 850 lives. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates 850 people were killed by motorists running red lights. The number looks– is– horrific, but it’s slightly less than two percent of all 2006 U.S. traffic fatalities. Throwing resources at this area of road safety seems, at best, counterintuitive.
Of course, red light cameras are one area where the money spent is dwarfed by the money the system generates for its operators– both civil AND commercial. It’s a paradigm that helped convince some 250 U.S. communities to install red light cameras, with California and Texas leading the way.
Campaigners are delighted. Richard Retting, senior transportation safety engineer for the Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS) claims “the jury is in”: red light cameras save lives. But the IIHS’ recent and highly touted red light study followed a two-step approach. First, researchers extended the yellow light cycle. THEN they added red light cameras.
The study claims that violations dropped by 36% after the yellow light change, followed by a 96% reduction in the remaining violations. Yes, but– the IIHS failed to provide any data whatsoever on actual accidents.
And no wonder. In the last six years, Washington, D.C.’s red light cameras caught over 500k violators, generating some $32m in fines. The Washington Post unearthed the resulting safety stats.
“The number of crashes at locations with cameras more than doubled, from 365 collisions in 1998 to 755 last year. Injury and fatal crashes climbed 81 percent, from 144 such wrecks to 262. Broadside crashes, also known as right-angle or T-bone collisions, rose 30 percent, from 81 to 106 during that time frame.”
If road safety campaigners are going to manipulate data and then say it doesn’t matter because a single life may be saved, opponents should be free to discuss the camera’s impact on personal freedom without recourse to scientific fact. Because with each camera install, no matter how “good” the case for a particular system may be, we lose a bit of our freedom.
Make no mistake: red light cameras and fixed speed cameras raise important constitutional questions. Does the presumption of innocence that forms the backbone of our judicial system extend to electronic surveillance? How can it be argued that a camera monitoring the speed and/or position of every car that passes does NOT violate that tenet?
A Georgia car owner who swears they weren’t driving when their car was caught by a red light camera can sign an affidavit to that effect, and avoid the fine. But they must also name the person who ran the light. What happened to their right to remain silent?
The Constitution of the United States specifically prohibits the government from conducting “indiscriminate search and seizure.” What could be more indiscriminate than a red light camera watching every single car that passes?
How about a live video camera that monitors the speed of every single car that passes? Or one that can instantly read and identify every license plate, connected to a network of such devices?
Ask the people of Great Britain. The government is adding hundreds of automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) cameras to their roadway system– complementing the tens of thousands of surveillance cameras installed in virtually every municipality in the entire country. Great Britain is now the most surveilled country on the face of planet earth– and their road safety is decreasing.
Now that the English are finally rebelling against the “safety camera” system, the government is sure to change tack and switch to video speed cameras. They can then claim the cameras are an important aid to anti-terrorism. But it can also be argued that red light, fixed speed, surveillance and ANPR cameras are a slippery slope to government tyranny.
Years ago, I was setting up computers for a training session for local police detectives. We talked about the burgeoning on-line world, replete with stalkers and all the rest of what’s truly bad about the ‘Net. As I was about to leave, I naively remarked to one detective: “Well, I don’t do anything wrong, so I’ve nothing to hide.” His reply woke me from my innocent mental slumber: “Don’t be so quick to give up your freedoms.”
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