What do you think about using automated technology - cameras - to enforce traffic laws?

Advocates say it's about promoting safety; critics say it's all about
generating cashflow for state and local governments; the machines can produce vastly more tickets (and thus, "revenue") than human cops can.

Who's right?

An answer may lie in the fact that unlike most other laws - which are rarely violated by the average citizen - almost all of us not only have been issued a ticket, we often violate traffic laws routinely.

This implies there may be something with the laws - not necessarily the people being issued tickets. And if that's the case, the making the process of issuing tickets more efficient sure seems to be nothing more noble than setting up a new way to gin up money for cash-strapped local/state governments.

Which is why the use of cameras is suspect.

The cameras - and the laws upon which they are based - are clearly set up ensnare as many people as possible - which has the convenient side effect of helping the city/county generate as much revenue as possible. Millions of dollars annually, in some cases.


An example is the way yellow intervals have been deliberately reduced at intersections where cameras have been put up. It is known that proper signal timing is very effective at reducing red light running - because most red light running is inadvertent. A driver approaches an intersection that suddenly shifts to yellow; because of the "short yellow," he gets caught mid-intersection, having entered when the light was still green but is nailed as it turns yellow, then red, before he can get through. It has been shown - by real-world testing - that increasing the yellow interval just a little bit markedly reduces the number of red light runners. No cameras - or tickets - required. But maybe that's not the goal of the exercise.

Several deliberately under-timed/improperly timed intersection have been successfully challenged in court. All of them had been altered (to shortened yellow intervals) when the cameras went up.


A human traffic cop can also exercise judgment - at least in theory - on a case by case basis. A machine cannot. Everyone's "guilty" - irrespective of circumstances. This is unfair on the face of it, too.

Sometimes, there are legitimate reasons for disobeying a traffic law. For example, let's say you are at a light that's red when an emergency vehicle - ambulance, fire truck, etc. - comes up behind you. You have the choice of either obstructing the emergency vehicle by failing to move out of the way - which is itself a violation of law. Or you can do the right thing and get out of the way - even if it means "running" the red light. A human cop would probably not give you a ticket under such circumstances. The camera will. And it will be on you to clear the matter up (if you even can) by wasting a day in court/fighting the bureaucracy.

Another problem with automated camera enforcement is the undercutting of due process.

When a human traffic cop performs a traffic stop, he asks to see your license and confirms your identity definitively - as well as the ownership of the vehicle. There is no question, later on, as to who was driving the car - and specifically, whether the owner of the car was also the driver at the time of the alleged violation.

You may dispute the particulars of the charge itself, but if a human cop issued your ticket, there is no question as to the identity of the person who was cited. With cameras, it is the car that is charged - because the "offender" is the vehicle, not the driver. The camera snaps a photo of the car's license plate - and it is the car's owner (who may or may not be the driver at the time) who gets the ticket in the mail.

It's true some of the more sophisticated cameras also take a picture of the driver - but a photo (grainy, taken at a distance, under not-ideal conditions, etc.) is much less dispositive than a human police officer physically examining a driver's license and comparing it to the face of the person he is interviewing.

With photo tickets, too, it becomes the burden of the accused to prove it wasn't him (or her) behind the wheel - reversing the most basic precept of Western jurisprudence that for centuries has placed the burden of proof on the accuser.

The owner may be completely innocent - and often is. Maybe it was the wife/husband - or teenaged kid - who happened to be driving at the time. Who knows, really? Yet when it comes to cameras and mailed-to-you tickets, it's the owner's burden to prove it wasn't him that did the deed.

That rightly strikes many people as unreasonable.

Even more unreasonable: In some states, the authorities demand that the owner identify the person who was driving at the time - if the owner is claiming it wasn't him. When did it become the job of the formerly innocent-until-proved-guilty citizen to serve as proxy prosecutor - ratting out others for the benefit of the government in order to avoid fines and punishment himself?

So, there are many arguments against the use of automated cameras to enforce traffic laws - and few supportable arguments in their favor.

Unless, of course, you're on the receiving end of the "revenue" stream.