The Brits are big on video surveillance, and just think, if they had had cameras in Boston in 1775 they might have caught and stopped Paul Revere on his famous ride. We might still be under the Queen’s rule and, among other losses, not have the Bill of Rights.
Now the Bill of Rights, and common sense for that matter, is under assault and the enemy is not abroad, but our own city council. Seems our city fathers are keen on installing robotic surveillance cameras at intersections to hopefully catch cars breaking the law. For a city steeped in civil liberties, and heretofore an innovator in traffic safety, robotic surveillance is a horrible idea for several reasons:
Invasive: Intersections are public, but while in your car you have windows, locks and rights, including a reasonable expectation of privacy and prohibition of unreasonable search. Pasadena was quick to learn one ramification of intersection surveillance. Years ago, their citations went out to homes with an “evidence photo” that not only caught drivers in the red, but sometimes with a passenger other than the driver’s spouse. Pasadena stopped sending the photos – but new photos are still held as evidence in case the city needs to haul the accused into court.
Presumption of Innocence: The ACLU is fighting Minneapolis’s intersection surveillance on the grounds it presumes guilt rather than innocence. When is the last time our city council was on the wrong side of the ACLU? For 121 years Santa Monica has enforced the law with officers, not robots. If intersection safety is a priority, use the funds that would have been spent on expensive surveillance to hire more cops – humans who understand not just the letter of the law but also the spirit of the law and who can enforce the law with equality.
Discriminatory Profiling: The body of law pertaining to intersections covers all users, not just drivers who would be illegally profiled by robotic surveillance for selective prosecution. Bicyclists run red, turn without signaling and even ride against traffic. Skateboarders come out of nowhere. Every driver alive has patiently sat through green waiting for pedestrians to cross against red. The only fair government robotic surveillance and prosecution is equal surveillance and prosecution of all. Technology might help. Bicycle licenses could include an RFID transponder (same remote readers used by toll booths) that identifies the rider at intersections under surveillance. Other ambulatory devices – skateboards, wheelchairs, strollers, walkers and canes – could be licensed as well for robotic government identification. What about pedestrians? Maybe we could be the first to make the “walk button” double as a digital fingerprint reader? Short term, chronic jaywalkers caught on camera could go out on wanted posters in city utility bills until the offenders are caught and tried. Emerging digital face image technology could eventually nab jaywalkers once we have their photos. None of these intrusions are any more invasive than that proposed by our city council targeting drivers in the privacy of their cars.
The Jury Is Out on Red Light Cameras’ Effectiveness: Google the subject and you will find no consensus that intersection surveillance improves public safety. The October 4, 2005, edition of the Washington Post has an analysis of the 45 intersections in the District of Columbia under surveillance, and after 500,000 violations and $32 million in fines, the number of accidents at those intersections has gone up. A ten-year study released by the Virginia Transportation Department in 2005 concludes that intersection cameras are correlated with an increase in total crashes, rear-end crashes and total injury crashes. Why not? Faced with $350+ fines, drivers will come to frantic stops on yellow and get rear-ended (a primary cause of fire deaths), or “gun it” to get wildly through the intersection before the light turns red and Big Brother Cyclops nabs them.
Junk Mail Justice: Other cities find that robotic citations have a bogus rate of about a quarter to a third of all citizens cited. Who is our city council to flood our mailboxes with $350 citation junk mail? If you are out of town for an extended period (vacation, a shoot, tending a sick relative), or your mail is delivered to the wrong house, and your moving violation goes to warrant, you could be arrested.
Where did we go wrong? Under the previous mayor (who reportedly opposes robotic surveillance), Santa Monica distinguished itself as a national innovator in traffic safety with creative improvements such as blinking crosswalks (my favorite), speed humps, traffic islands, medians, roundabouts and other ways to save lives. In New York City, 147 intersections are being tested with “walk signals” that go green eight seconds before the traffic light turns green to create a traffic pause and give pedestrians better position in the intersection. Maybe we should try that? Or how about an enlightened education campaign addressing all types of intersection users – mailed with city utility bills? Nine states have made red light camera surveillance illegal. Lives can and should be saved without compromising our civil liberties.
Listen my children and you shall hear,
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere
King George’s robot cameras watched both days and nights
The Brits stopped poor Paul and nixed the Bill of Rights