On Camera in Baltimore
We often throw around the term Draconian to describe unusually harsh or unforgiving laws and penalties. Draco was among the first to codify the laws of Athens on wooden tablets – a good thing – but he also assigned slavery and death as a recourse for many minor matters – not a good thing for minor offenders. The similarly-named Vlad Dracul, or Vlad III, who briefly ruled part of what we now call Romania, was posthumously given the nickname of Țepeș (“Impaler”) after his preferred method of punishment – rumoured to have been imposed for the slightest offense.
Here in Baltimore we’ve been having a broughaha over speed cameras. Many were put in a few years ago, then found to be giving some tickets to cars that weren’t even moving. On Feb 20th, The Atlantic’s Cities blog summed up:
Baltimore’s particular speed camera problem first came to light in 2012, when the Baltimore Sun revealed that at least seven of the city’s 83 radar cameras, all of them owned and operated by Xerox State and Local Solutions, were prone to issuing fines to drivers who were not exceeding the speed limit. Xerox itself claimed it found only five cameras that didn’t work, and shut them down. The city, meanwhile, downplayed the problem even further, claiming the error rate for Xerox speed cameras was “one-quarter of one percent.” In short: Nothing to see here!
Xerox’s contract with Baltimore ended in 2012, but the deal is making headlines again thanks to a recent audit showing the company’s cameras performed worse than even the Sun realized. The big takeaway? That error rate of “one-quarter of one percent”—promoted by city officials!—was actually upwards of 10 percent; 26 percent of issued citations were “questionable.”
I do like that people have slowed down on the hill between my apartment and the light rail, but the cameras have essentially created a series of morning drag races at the next traffic light as Lexus and Benz drivers – tired of doing only 25 mph – accelerate to be the first in line to get onto I-83. Should there be even more cameras?
Also on Feb 20th, Streetsblog came out in support of speed and red light cameras with, There Is No Doubt That Automated Traffic Enforcement Saves Lives:
The de Blasio administration is seeking permission from Albany to install speed and red light cameras as the city sees fit, while [Jennifer Lynch of the Electronic Frontier Foundation] argues that “New York has not shown that adding cameras to city streets and mandating private vehicle monitoring will prevent pedestrian deaths.” … If NYC implemented speed cameras citywide and achieved a 30 percent reduction in traffic deaths and serious injuries — the low end of the typical range of improvement in these studies — nearly 100 lives would be saved and nearly 1,000 life-altering injuries would be prevented each year.
There is no doubt that using speed cameras and red light cameras to impose fines will slow down traffic, but there is also no doubt that confiscating cars and throwing the offenders in prison would do the same. There is also no doubt that impaling offenders on poles along the roadway would deliver an even stronger message.
The question is not only whether cameras work, it is also whether the fines are imposed fairly and justly.
Whether accidentally, or accidentally on-purpose, speed cameras seem to err on the side of issuing too many tickets. Red light cameras have been shown to be unjust on-purpose. Operators and local jurisdictions have shortened yellow light timing to maximize profits. Local governments make challenging tickets as time-consuming as possible. That is not justice, it is entrapment and revenue enhancement.
No one wants people running red lights or speeding recklessly, so if speed cameras accurately measured velocity, would it make sense to have them everywhere? As a bicycle commuter I wouldn’t mind too much if cars slowed down. But by necessity I’m also a car driver, and one quibble is that speed limits are conservative. By car or bike, I drive faster when traffic is light, when the weather is good, etc, and slower at night, or in the rain. The speed camera just measures against one dumb number.
Another quibble is that once they teach people that all the streets are being watched, only a few fools will drive too fast and governments can kiss that speed camera income goodbye. So as a practical matter, localities will only put speed cameras in some places, and not in others.