|By HOLMAN W. JENKINS, JR.|
A Journal front-pager recently noted an Arizona man charged with attacking a freeway speed camera with a pick ax. Here's the rest of the story: He was fined $3,500, not given a parade.
But don't despair. We still live in a democracy. One Arizona sheriff recently proved you could get elected by opposing speed cameras. Meanwhile, the state legislature is considering bills to dismantle the system created by Gov. Janet Napolitano when she faced a gaping budget deficit, before she escaped to the Obama Department of Homeland Security. Petitioners in Arizona are also gathering signatures to put the question directly before voters -- speed cameras have never won when submitted to voters.
Even the Scottsdale City Council recently voted not to oppose the anti-camera bills in the state legislature.
Why is this important? Because Arizona, specifically Scottsdale, is home to the two biggest companies, American Traffic Solutions and Redflex Traffic Systems, in the incestuous world of promoting and operating traffic cameras for revenue-hungry governments.
Laid to rest long ago should have been the pretense that the goal is "safety," not chasing cash. New York State, sinking under budget shortfalls, last week authorized a batch of new red-light cameras around the state. A recent investigation by the Detroit News showed that even conventional ticket-writing is driven by revenue needs. Said one cop: "When you're being told how many tickets you need to write, to me that's a quota."
Consider: Red-light running and speeding, the two main uses of traffic cameras, are implicated in fewer than 8% of accidents. A far more prevalent cause of nondrunken accidents is driver inattention -- one study estimated, in a typical case the driver's eyes are diverted from the road for a full three seconds or more, fidgeting with a cellphone, disciplining the kids in the back seat, snoozing, blotting up spilled coffee, etc.
What's more, if not for the idiotic diversion of research dollars to fuel economy, the most highly touted auto-industry breakthroughs today would be exactly in this area. Available now or coming soon are devices that warn a driver when he's wandering out of his lane or when another car is in his blind spot, even applying the brakes to prevent a collision.
Stop-light cameras are especially pernicious. Where red-light running is a problem, the solution is usually a longer yellow -- at least three seconds is the recommended minimum for a 25-mph intersection. Drivers do not blast through red lights on purpose. Even the federal government encourages the use of engineering solutions before installing a red-light camera.
Yet as the late and lamented Rocky Mountain News found when Denver was sizing up intersections for cameras a year ago, many of those deemed accident-prone had yellows timed at the state minimum of three seconds or even less. Citizen groups around the country have more than once raised suspicions of authorities shortening yellows to ring up more tickets. Half a dozen Georgia towns just cancelled their camera contracts after a state law mandating the addition of an extra second to the yellow made them unprofitable.
Even defenders of photo enforcement acknowledge studies showing that red-light cameras (which are designed to be conspicuous to motorists) lead to an increase in rear-end collisions as drivers slam on the brakes. Defenders claim the trade-off is still a net gain because of reduced deadly T-bones in the middle of the intersection. But the real lesson may be that both types of accidents would be reduced by a longer yellow.
Britain has gone furthest in using cameras for comprehensive auto surveillance, and now says it's capable of monitoring every car trip in the U.K. and keeping a record for five years. Most traffic cameras are "on" all the time, and capable of being networked with plate- and even face-recognition software. In Britain, the data yielded will be incorporated in a database of all kinds of personal information and camera observations to enable "data mining" to let the government know who's doing what, when and where.
Never in America, you say? Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick is moving ahead with a plan for mandatory GPS devices in cars that would be read at gas pumps and automatically charge drivers for miles driven.
Your car already contains electronics that could report on, say, the quality of your emissions. How long before government knows not just where you went, but how fast and how much CO2 you vented in the process, and thanks to your email and phone records, whether you were visiting somebody or doing something that might warrant a further look?
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Holman W. Jenkins Jr. is a member of the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal and writes editorials and the weekly Business World column.
Mr. Jenkins joined the Journal in May 1992 as a writer for the editorial page in New York. In February 1994, he moved to Hong Kong as editor of The Asian Wall Street Journal's editorial page. He returned to the domestic Journal in December 1995 as a member of the paper's editorial board and was based in San Francisco. In April 1997, he returned to the Journal's New York office. Mr. Jenkins won a 1997 Gerald Loeb Award for distinguished business and financial coverage.
Born in Philadelphia, Mr. Jenkins received a bachelor's degree from Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and studied at the University of Michigan on a journalism fellowship.