Cash, not safety, in focus for cameras on roads

Phil Berg
Car Culture

Australia is a wacky place, about the size of Canada with the population of Texas, yet proud of its penal colony roots, and its history of disdain for authority. But the place is a police state compared to the U.S., specifically in the way it tickets motorists.

The state of Victoria, for example, has a population of just more than 5 million (about the same as Wisconsin, half the size of Michigan), but it’s been reported that it makes more than $300 million on speeding tickets every year (about 10 times that of Wisconsin). So it’s no surprise that the modern automated photo ticket machines now used in the U.S. were developed and implemented Down Under in 2000. Since then, the companies that make and use the machines have made huge profits from American motorists. None, however, in Michigan.

Yet.

State Sen. Virgil Smith Jr., D-Detroit, is rewriting a failed bill from last year to allow automatic ticketing of speeders, starting by setting up photo-ticketing machines in a half-mile radius of school zones.

A camera unit is mounted on a post or in an empty vehicle, and snaps a photo of a car when a radar gun measures its speed. Under the guise of safety, this seems like a good plan, until you look at what’s been happening around the country, and the connection of these ticketing machines to the wacky Australians.

The first tip that something unusual is up is that the bill lets photo tickets for speeding be issued when students are out of school. Violators would be tapped for $110, which would be split between the city, the local schools, and to a library fund. The municipality splits its take with the private Australian companies that administer the program. That all sounds good on the surface. However, Washington D.C. has a similar rule as proposed here, and it includes as a school the administrative offices of the “Fashion Institute of Design.” Not a lot of kids running around there.

You can’t blame Smith for trying to raise money. But the facts behind Australian-run automated ticketing machine systems just don’t add up for me. Australia does not pay attention to our constitutional rule that persons accused have a right to face their accusers. So machines make fine witnesses down there, even though there are many reports of erroneous readings, bogus tickets, and no positive effect on traffic safety.

Of course, we’ve been taught since birth that speed kills, so we’re all afraid of it. However, in 1990, the NHTSA produced a report — the now famous Tignor and Warren paper — that stated “Speed limits which are set artificially low tend to be ignored and misallocate resources, apprehending and prosecuting motorists driving at safe speeds. Over time this could lead to a loss of respect for all speed limits and create the impression that traffic law enforcement and the judicial system are unfair. The same public when emotionally aroused demand and often get reduced speed limits by believing the lower limit will slow down traffic and reduce accidents.”

Setting limits too low, especially in front of trendy fashion institutes with automated ticketing cameras, really cranks up the number of tickets that can be issued, and the amount of money the wacky Australians can get from us.

Back to Washington D.C.: An analysis by Howard University in 2012 revealed that of the more than 18,000 vehicle accidents, 18 were fatal, and 5,258 caused injuries. Speed was a factor in just 3.1 percent of the accidents, while distracted driving accounted for 16.1 percent, according to the analysis. Still, the city issued 2.4 million traffic tickets in 2013 (four for every D.C. resident), squeezing $171 million from motorists. These folks are as nuts as the Australians, except that the D.C. Office of the Inspector General reported that speed cameras “lack precision and certainty. In many situations, one or two speed camera images cannot tell an accurate story.”

And elsewhere: In Maryland there are 45 local municipalities that use speed camera machines to raise $70 million a year, although an audit in Baltimore showed that 70,000 photo speeding tickets were sent out for cars not actually speeding.

The city of Edmonton, Canada, lost $17 million in 2011 when it had to refund money after automated photo speeding tickets were found to be inaccurate.

Earlier this year, the Department of Transportation in Iowa responded to inquiries of whether a proliferation of automated speed cameras by revenue-seeking towns was legal by stating the installations needed to have an engineer assessment that there was truly a safety motivation for crashes caused by speeding. Things got so bad that legislators in neighboring South Dakota exempted its drivers from paying out-of-state photo tickets from Iowa. South Dakota also banned photo ticketing.

A Missouri appellate judge in 2011 argued that photo tickets are not for moving violations but are civil penalties, and so skirted the law that automated photo tickets are illegal. The Missouri Supreme Court said this year the civil penalty argument was bogus. The ticket machine industry is maneuvering with legislators to create a law that moving violations do not result in license points, to placate angry motorists and perhaps calm legislators.

Last April the Colorado state senate moved to prevent municipalities from hiring private companies to ticket vehicle owners. Scott Renfroem, the state senator who sponsored the bill said: “It’s a bill about liberty and our constitutional rights to face our accuser, our right to due process. When we use red light cameras and we say we’re increasing safety, some of the data shows we’re not. You’re assumed to be guilty until you prove yourself innocent.”

My suggestion to improve safety: Follow the data from the Howard University study and order every cop to write 16 distracted driving tickets for every 3 speeding ticket he writes. That would send the message that law enforcement was truly interested in our safety, not just our money.

Phil Berg is a Metro Detroit

freelance writer.