As the light turned green above me, I started to accelerate into the intersection. I looked right, then left. As I did so I saw the Ford F-150 barreling toward me. In disbelief, I stopped the car and watched the big truck thunder past, brazenly running the light and narrowly missing me.
It is at least ostensibly to prevent collisions (such as this incident could have been) that those in authority advocate the use of red-light cameras. Red-light, speed and traffic cameras watch every single driver passing through an intersection or past a given point, seeing everything, forgetting nothing, often issuing tickets without warning. You cannot reason with a traffic camera; you cannot describe to it mitigating circumstances; you cannot offer to it exculpatory evidence. If you are issued a ticket by a police officer, you may face that officer in court and defend yourself from the charge. If you are issued a ticket by a red-light camera, you are effectively guilty until proven innocent – with little or no opportunity to provide such proof. The camera, a machine, is presumed to be infallible ... and you, a citizen of what is supposed to be a free country, are at the mercy of a device that feels no such emotion.
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In the eyes of those in power, red-light cameras and similar devices provide a steady stream of revenue. They do not tire; they do not join unions; they need not be paid. They can work around the clock, and they catch every single violator. At least in theory, such public surveillance and punishment provides a deterrent. Traffic cameras are presumed to save lives by preventing drivers from believing they can run a red light or exceed the speed limit without being caught. But is this really true?
Only a few months ago, a Laura Frazier reported that crashes increase at corners where traffic cameras are rolling. "New data released by the sheriff's office shows 24 crashes at [an intersection in Brandon, Fla.] from January through March, after the traffic monitoring devices were installed. There were nine accidents at the corner in the same period last year." This is hardly empirical data – but there's plenty of that. Red-light and traffic cameras are far from an automotive safety panacea. Multiple studies, in fact, show that red-light or traffic cameras increase accidents.
The Virginia Transportation Research Council reported in 2007 that red-light cameras increased "crash costs" as often as they did not. The report concluded that the results of the camera crash data "cannot be used to justify the widespread installation of cameras because they are not universally effective." Three years before that, in 2004, the Urban Transit Institute concluded that red-light cameras increase some types of accidents while having a marginal effect on fatal red-light violations. "The results," the study reads, "do not support the view that red-light cameras reduce crashes. Instead, we find that (they) are associated with higher levels of many types and severity categories of crashes."
These results were not, in fact, news, because the same effect had already been observed in a Canadian study of the same type. In Ontario in 2003, the Ministry of Transportation concluded, in examining a red-light camera pilot program, that the cameras contributed to a nearly 20 percent overall increase in "property damage" collisions. Drivers were slamming on their brakes to avoid getting tickets – and causing accidents thanks to their abrupt maneuvering in traffic. Rear-end collisions alone increased by nearly 50 percent, which makes perfect sense given that such cameras cause alarmed drivers to slow down suddenly or stop without warning.
An Australian study done several years ago concluded that the use of red-light cameras at specified locations "did not provide any reduction in accidents," instead increasing accidents – specifically, "rear-end and adjacent-approaches accidents on a before-and-after basis and also by comparison with the changes in accidents at intersection signals." The results, in other words, were identical to a high-profile crash in Arizona, in which a speed camera caused an accident. When a driver slammed on his brakes to avoid receiving a citation from the camera, which uses radar to issue traffic citations automatically, the result was a rear-end collision scant feet from the device.
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Liberals love traffic cameras. They never fail to advocate any measure that allows Big Brother to peer over your shoulder while reaching into your wallet. It is because they adore the thought of 24/7 control of every facet of your life that they like surveillance cameras so much. If they can watch you, they can punish you when you step out of line. Democrats and leftists of every stripe are also addicted to your money. Any municipal scheme that takes money from your pocket and puts it in their coffers is something they support, and red-light cameras are nothing if not a money-making scheme. We've known this and acknowledged it for nearly a decade.
In 2001, the office of then House Majority Leader Dick Armey claimed that red-light cameras "present a perverse disincentive for local jurisdictions to fix intersections with excessive red-light entries. It's hard to fix a 'problem' that brings in millions in revenue. In other words, red-light cameras aren't fixing a safety problem, they're creating one."
Unfortunately, as evidence mounts implicating traffic cameras as problem-makers rather than problem-solvers, those in power simply ignore the data. They insist that such cameras "save lives" and thus such public surveillance is for your own good. The control – and the money – such cameras offer is far more appealing than anything so prosaic as the truth about those cameras' effects on public safety or civil rights.
The traffic camera is a camel's nose in the tent. Liberals will not be satisfied until your every waking moment takes place under a camera's lens. What we must ask ourselves is whether we really want to live like this for the illusory promise of improved public safety.