Cameras are not good politics

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By Jay Miller

     SANTA FE — Why are traffic cameras so controversial? We know that speeding and running red lights is dangerous so we have passed laws establishing penalties against people who do it.

     So what’s wrong with taking a picture of people who have broken the law? For some reason many people who would classify themselves as law-and-order types become downright angry at the notion of their right to privacy being invaded.

     Those same people have no problem with a surveillance camera catching a lawbreaker. They usually also figure that if you’re not the type to break the law, why object to things like warrantless wiretapping or home searches?

     But in those cases, there is only a suspicion of lawbreaking. No one has persuaded a judge that maybe a law is being broken. In the case of traffic cameras, a machine already has clocked a vehicle traveling over the speed limit or having entered an intersection when the light was already red.

     The only questions are the identity of the driver and the vehicle. So a camera peeks inside your windshield to take a picture of you and takes another of your license plate.

Is that picture an invasion of privacy? It takes a stretch to make the case. I am told people have no idea how often they are under electronic surveillance. And yet there is no outcry about big brother watching us. It’s a good idea. It catches crooks.

     Granted, traffic offenses aren’t in the same category as burglary or shoplifting. But the more any of those offenses go unidentified and unpunished, the more they will occur.

     That’s why we try to add to the fear of getting caught. In the case of traffic violations, it is called changing driver behavior. Does it work? I’ve heard a Santa Fe city councilor say it does. I can’t say I have noticed any change since traffic cameras were installed last year.

     But in the Phoenix suburbs of Scottsdale and Paradise Valley, I have no doubt. Even with the many tourists in the area there are few traffic infractions. Even the most infrequent tourist gets the word that traffic laws should not be broken.

     Along the path to changing driver behavior, a problem has occurred in the case of red-light cameras. Although side-impact collisions (the most dangerous) have declined, rear-impact collisions have increased.

     Studies I have seen indicate that increase is less than the decrease in often-fatal collisions in intersections.

     But that little foot in the door has emboldened the masses of traffic camera opponents. “Research” shows that traffic cameras don’t work, they say, often adding that they make driving even more dangerous.

     It was these people that the New Mexico Transportation Commission must have been listening to when it voted unanimously two weeks ago to ban traffic cameras on all state and federal roads.     

     Gov. Bill Richardson commended the action.

The commission says it doesn’t have convincing proof that traffic cameras work. The panel gave no indication what sort of proof might be convincing. It may be that the best proof would be public opinion polls demonstrating public support for the cameras.

     What it all comes down to is that no matter how much safer the cameras make our roads, they are not good politics. The public doesn’t like them and probably never will. Politicians get elected to office running against traffic cameras.

     Otherwise law-abiding citizens can’t stand the idea of being nabbed for a traffic violation. Traffic cops are reviled. “Why aren’t you out catching crooks?” they are often asked.

     Cameras catch even more violators than cops so they are hated even more. Now that governmental bodies are using cameras as revenue generators the public’s ire is even greater. “You’re waging war on drivers,” is a common refrain.

     So why are cameras so controversial? A lawyer friend tells me it often is because the identity of the passenger is revealed. And it sometimes is embarrassing.

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