It’s happened to two of my friends already. And Morgan, unfortunately, you’re one of them.

Yes, you’ve been nabbed (twice, is it?) by the newest, and perhaps most irksome, law enforcement technology: the traffic camera. Cities across the country have installed the cameras in an effort to expand law enforcement’s watchful eye. Some have hailed these efforts as an essential step in making our roads safer. But others, often those who have received their bills– er, tickets– in the mail, have lashed against the technology for its imperfections and its prying nature.

What are these cameras and how do they work? Under the general mantle of “road-rule enforcement cameras” there are various cameras with many different designs: to catch people speeding, running red lights, or even driving unauthorized in bus/HOV lanes. These technologies trace their roots– as do many “nanny-state” innovations– to the UK. And it’s certainly worth noting that if I run a red light in Pittsburgh, up to 80 percent of the revenue from my ticket will not go to my city, but instead will be sent overseas to the UK or Australia to the corporations that manage traffic cameras. So much for the revenue generation trope local governments often try to play.

OK, so maybe we don’t buy that argument. There is little appeal to a cash-strapped municipality asking its citizens for more money. But what about the public safety argument? Don’t traffic cameras make us safer? Well, if we look at a study by U.S. Department of Transportation,  “the results do not support the view that red light cameras reduce crashes. Instead, we find that RLCs are associated with higher levels of many types and severity categories of crashes.” The study found cameras have a statistically insignificant effect on severe and fatal crashes, but cause a 40 percent increase in less serious crashes, especially rear-end accidents. Makes sense, right? People are slamming on their brakes because they’re afraid of that eerie white structure protruding above their heads and the $150 ticket that looms in the mail.

So why are we seeing a proliferation of these cameras? First, it isn’t just corporate greed. Local and city governments, by dint of the sheer number of extra tickets, often make more in revenue than they would otherwise. So why not put in a few more cameras? Second, the public safety numbers can support either side. And it’s a lackadaisical citizenry– people who will trade their freedom for protection– that allows governments to push these cameras on them in the name of the public good.

So how do we respond? Jim Raussen R-Springdale is an Ohio senator who is currently fighting the plan in his home state. He is proposing a bill that would require that a police officer be present in order for any ticket to be written.

Raussen’s efforts, I believe, are a step in the right direction. Our law is a human system– messy, confusing, and often brilliant in adapting to particulars. If we take the human element out of law enforcement, we are taking out one of its most essential components– its problem-solving ability. A police officer can often see by the look on your face, your circumstances either in your car or with fellow motorists, things crucial in fairly deciding whether you should be ticketed. A machine cannot make a gut-level decision like that. So for now, we need humans, not machines, running law enforcement.

Daniel Corbett 

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