HOW HE SEES IT Speed detectors as money machines
By EDWARD ACHORN
There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live -- did live, from habit that became instinct -- in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.
From the novel "1984."
George Orwell's gloomy vision of a future where the individual would be ruthlessly shadowed by an omnipresent state was, it turns out, a little off.
True enough, modern politicians are indeed exploiting the unblinking eye of technology to trip up citizens. But they're not doing it for such arcane purposes as enforcing ideological conformity or crushing the human spirit.
No, their goals are much purer: They want more of your money.
Hence, the explosion of stoplight cameras nationwide -- machines designed to raise revenue by catching citizens crossing an intersection after the light turns red.
It's a lot of loot. One camera in Washington, D.C., reportedly generated $1 million a year. And San Diego reportedly took in $30 million during 18 months when 19 cameras were operating.
The Rhode Island legislature got into the act this year, passing legislation that will let Providence Mayor David Cicilline -- who has generally done good things for the city -- raise an estimated $2 million a year with red-light camera traps. He expects to have as many as 25 of them up and running by January, hitting motorists with a $75 ticket per infraction.
Since $50 of that goes to the city, that means that Providence plans to issue at least 40,000 additional red-light tickets a year.
You may ask: Is there anything wrong with that? Don't all those red-light runners deserve what they get?
You've got me there. Both in my car and on my feet, I have experienced the terror of Ocean State motorists' racing through red lights, indifferent to the prospect of killing someone. I've never seen anything like it! And I have beheld the maddening tendency of Rhode Islanders to block intersections between lights -- locking everyone in place -- instead of waiting their turn.
Such people richly merit tickets, prosecution or worse. But is the camera the best way to go?
Some states are mulling that one.
Virginia just pulled the plug on its 10-year-old program after a study by the state Department of Transportation found that cameras dramatically increased accidents and serious injuries because people slammed on their brakes rather than get a ticket.
Last year, the U.S. Department of Transportation sponsored a study by the Urban Transit Institute of North Carolina A & amp;T State University. "The results do not support the view that red-light cameras reduce crashes," the study found.
"Instead, we find that RLCs are associated with higher levels of many types and severity categories of crashes."
In California, motorists are increasingly rebelling against tickets that now cost $341 per infraction -- along with an insurance surcharge. It is in the nature of governments to start off small with taxes, fees and charges -- and ratchet them up over time. Insurance companies, eager to boost profits with surcharges, often wield great influence at statehouses -- so that states (like Rhode Island) that impose no surcharge for red-light-camera tickets at the beginning might well do so later.
And in some states, speed detectors with cameras are being set up -- an Orwellian idea that Cranston, R.I., Mayor Stephen Laffey has explored.
Those who still care about civil liberties wonder about due process. A camera snaps a picture, and a ticket arrives weeks later -- long after the motorist has forgotten the incident. There is little chance to plead extenuating circumstances -- "That old lady stepped off the curb in front of me, against the light, Officer, forcing me to stop in the intersection," etc. -- because the time has passed, and the evidence is gone.
In Los Angeles County, one wrongly calibrated camera captured pictures of motorists' license plates 2.5 seconds into the 3-second yellow cycle, said Eric Skrum of the National Motorists Association, a group that opposes tickets by camera. It took two years before one of the victims figured out that people were receiving tickets for going through yellow lights. Trying to prove one's innocence is no easy task, as one might imagine.
Proponents, of course, cite their own studies, and note that side-impact crashes -- often the most dangerous -- decrease when cameras are installed.
The politicians invariably assure us they are in it for the safety. They're from the government, and they're here to help us. Pardon my skepticism. It is far safer politically to hit segments of the population for money -- especially people you can easily brand scofflaws -- than to hike the taxes of a broad group of voters.
X Edward Achorn is The Providence Journal's deputy editorial-page editor. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.