Thursday, October 27, 2011

Slow down, Big Brother is watching

Automated cameras for years have been installed at selected traffic intersections in Chicago to catch drivers going through red lights. Mayor Emanuel has announced that he would like to see the use of these traffic control devices extended, especially in the vicinity of schools and parks to catch speeders. His stated reason is to protect the children of our city from reckless drivers. Well, who's not in favor of that? Of course if you believe that's the real reason behind the cameras, then I'd like to personally welcome you back from your forty year visit to Never Never Land.

Everyone else knows that at one hundred bucks a pop, catching misbehaving drivers red handed is a cash cow for the city. According to this article in the Chicago Tribune, in 2009, the red light cameras netted 59 million dollars for the city. The city certainly needs the money. As someone who has two school age children and who commutes to work primarily by bicycle, I should be cheering the mayor's new initiative. If only I had a dime for every time I was cut off on the road by a speeding driver and thought: "Where's a police officer when you need one?"

Yet I'm skeptical. As far as I know, studies on the effectiveness of Chicago's red light cameras have been inconclusive. As a driver for well over thirty years, I know that safe driving doesn't depend on slavishly adhering to the rules of the road, but on carefully observing and accessing traffic conditions, and driving accordingly. A safe driver could be completely aware of his surroundings, but be breaking the law if by going with the flow of traffic he is exceeding the speed limit. Another driver could be completely distracted by a conversation, drinking coffee and switching the dial of his radio, all at the same time. If that driver is traveling at the speed limit however, he is not breaking the law. Under the mayor's proposed new use of the cameras, the first driver would get the ticket.

A flesh and blood police officer can make appropriate judgments about safe driving, a camera and a computer cannot. It's just a cold and calculated machine that works 24/7, night and day, rain or shine, without lunch, overtime or a doughnut break, and won't let the driver off with a warning. There is no question of guilt or innocence, no mitigating circumstances, no conceivable justification for one's actions, just a photograph with the conclusive evidence, your car is in the middle of the intersection and the light is red, one hundred dollars please. You have a week to contest but what's the point? If you wait longer than a week, you owe another hundred dollars.

Small wonder the city loves them.

There's no doubt that there will be much opposition to Mayor Emanuel's plan, but I have little doubt that he will get his way. Let's hope that this technology will work to our benefit and will result in fewer accidents. Not that it matters but if they actually do the job they're supposed to do, I would support the speed cameras whole-heartedly.

Until I get a ticket.

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