Thursday, September 17, 2009

The DC Police State

In a recent issue of The Mail Gary Imhoff discusses DC's automated traffic enforcement of speeding and red-light running. While this is nothing new, the situation is about to take a turn for the gestapo with the recent announcement that the city plans to triple the number of automated speed traps. And this is on top of the 104% increase in revenue that DC has gotten from these bad boys in the last two years - $46 million from 620,000 citations issued this year alone. That's more than one citation per resident of DC. In the current issue of The Mail, one commenter makes the classic argument that there is no possible reason to be upset about this because, hey, speeding is against the law:

But it seems to me that in the recent discussion, people are not questioning the legitimacy of the law; they are questioning the legitimacy of enforcing a good law, if that pursuit means that a private entity or the government profits from the pursuit. If a person is breaking the law, isn’t this really just “sour grapes” about being caught?

Amazingly I have never written about red light and speed cameras before on this blog, but there are two primary components to the arguments against them. On the one side, there is ample evidence that red-light cameras in particular may not actually increase safety. At intersections where red-light cameras are present, while there may be a minor decrease in T-bone type collisions, it is generally offset by an increase in rear-end collisions, as people slam on their brakes at the first sign of a yellow light to avoid a possible ticket, when in fact the correct course of action at that speed would have been to proceed through the intersection. The other side is the precedent set by pervasive automated law enforcement.

Apart from the general arguments against these devices, they are rarely installed in response to safety concerns. It is a documented fact that in most jurisdictions, DC included, red light cameras are installed at intersections where the most red-light running occurs - not intersections where the most accidents occur. The same for speed cameras - they are installed not in response to safety concerns, but in response to areas where speeding is prevalent. The obvious conclusion is that the primary purpose of these devices is revenue generation, rather than safety.

It may come as a surprise, but there isn't actually a very strong relationship between unsafe intersections, and intersections where people run red lights. More often than not, analysis has shown that intersections with high incidences of red-light running have design problems. Either it is difficult for traffic to make turns legally, or the yellow light is timed too short for the speed limit, or it has physical design problems. Wouldn't a good government try to figure out and correct problems with such intersections, improving safety and traffic flow, rather than just trying to profit from them?

The same is usually true of areas where people routinely speed. Studies have shown that most people drive at a speed that is comfortable given the conditions, regardless of the speed limit - the size and type of the road, traffic conditions, proximity to pedestrian and other traffic, and so on. Most places where people speed frequently are not at all unsafe and have few accidents. Rather, the speed limit is set artifically low. But instead of trying to understand why people routinely speed in certain places and adjusting the speed limit to reflect the conditions, the government profits from it.

If You Have Nothing To Hide You Have Nothing To Fear

But back to the time-honored argument in favor of any kind of zealous law enforcement. "If you aren't breaking the law, then you don't have anything to worry about." The problem with this argument is that it can be used to defend any kind of government intrusion and law enforcement, all the way to up and including McCarthyism and Nazi Germany. It can be used to defend any kind of wiretapping, surveillance, or police searches.

I realize that by even mentioning Nazi Germany in the context of speed cameras I risk being laughed off the podium, because there is no comparison. I agree. I am absolutely not comparing the two. So I will say it again so there is no misunderstanding.

The argument that is almost always used to defend automated law enforcement, can also be used to defend any form of government monitoring or law enforcement techniques.

So unless you would also be in favor of the extreme scenario, equally defensible with this argument, it a bad argument.

Imagine the most efficient form of traffic enforcement possible. An automated system, perhaps built into your car or into the roads, monitored your actions at all times. If you roll through a stop sign, or exceed the speed limit for even a second, or pull away from the curb without fastening your seatbelt, a buzzer would go off in your car and deduct a fine from your bank account. George Orwell's "1984" is the quintessential vision of this future. But that's a little too extreme for the purpose of this discussion. However, a couple other movies come to mind that show a slightly more realistic version of where this could end up. In Demolition Man, violating any law (including uttering a curse word) resulted in a piece of paper being spit out from a nearby kiosk with your fine. In The Fifth Element Bruce Willis' taxicab rattles off the number of violations he has remaining until he loses his licence each time he gets in a fender bender or breaks a traffic law.

Eight years of the Bush administration notwithstanding, I think that the vast majority of the people in this country would have a problem with constant government monitoring and absolute law enforcement of this sort.

So I submit to those who think that there is no problem with the proliferation of automated traffic enforcement devices: why is this OK with you, but not the extreme scenario, which is equally defensible with the same argument? Where would you draw a line, and why would you draw it there?

This is not about "sour grapes" and wanting to break the law without getting caught. It's about the purpose of our laws, and how we enforce them. When you identify a stretch of road where people routinely drive 10 miles per hour over the speed limit, but isn't especially accident prone, that should be a sign that perhaps the speed limit is too low -- not your cue to start shaking down everyone who drives through there. If you have an intersection that has frequent red light running, instead of profiting from it, figure out what makes this intersection different from similar ones where people don't run the lights all the time.

A good government does not make arbitrary laws, and then use them as an opportunity to tax its citizens more. Situations constantly change, and laws are obviously much slower to do so. We should not aggressively enforce laws like these simply because we can, without trying to understand why people are breaking these laws. This notion is hardly without precedent. When I lived in Mount Pleasant, street parking became extremely difficult, and Jim Graham successfully got the police to agree to cease enforcement of parking restrictions that limited you to 25 feet from an intersection. The vast majority of the citizens favored this, and the citywide law was not changed, obviously, but the police agreed to cease enforcement. Over time, perhaps that law will change so it can accommodate the needs of a given community. This same notion can be applied here - while it may take a while to figure out why people are speeding or running red lights somewhere, unless there is a documented safety problem, zealous enforcement does not serve the community.

In DC, our government has embraced the notion that there's nothing wrong with the roads, the intersections, and the speed limits - there's just something wrong with all the people who use them and they should pay for that. That is an absurd notion. And even more offensive is that this approach places money before safety -- since these automated enforcement devices are placed with maximum revenue in mind, while unsafe intersections and stretches of road remain unsafe.


Unknown said...

It pisses me off that in a city with as many guns as São Paulo (or DC), those damn radar cameras remain intact and unshot.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with your post, and I didn't think it was boring or droned on.