Friday, March 27, 2009

Eyes in the Sky

Cameras to Catch Speeders are Spreading: And Sparking Road Rage.

Once a rarity, traffic cameras are filming away across the country. And they're not just focusing their sights on red-light runners. The latest technology includes cameras that keep tabs on highways to catch speeders in the act and infrared license-plate readers that nab ticket and tax scofflaws.

Once a rarity, traffic cameras are filming away across the country. And they're not just focusing their sights on red-light runners. The latest technology includes cameras that keep tabs on highways to catch speeders in the act and infrared license-plate readers that nab ticket and tax scofflaws.
You figured it wouldn't be long before the public viewed this technology as intrusive and began devising ways to "beat the system" of the ubiquitous surveillance camera.
Protests over the cameras aren't new, but they appear to be rising in tandem with the effort to install more. Suppliers estimate that there are now slightly over 3,000 red-light and speed cameras in operation in the U.S., up from about 2,500 a year ago. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says that at the end of last year, 345 U.S. jurisdictions were using red-light cameras, up from 243 in 2007 and 155 in 2006.
America being America, we "fight the power", don't we?
In December, a trooper arrested a man in Glendale while he was attacking a camera with a pick ax. In another incident, a troupe of men dressed as Santa Claus toured around the city of Tempe in December and placed gaily wrapped boxes over several traffic cameras, blocking their views. Their exploits have been viewed more than 222,000 times on YouTube.

Some entrepreneurs are trying to help camera opponents fight back. Phantom Plate Inc., a Harrisburg, Pa., company, sells Photoblocker spray at $29.99 a can and Photoshield, a plastic skin for a license plate. Both promise to reflect a traffic-camera flash, making the license plate unreadable. California passed a law banning use of the spray and the plate covers, which became effective at the beginning of this year.

A free iPhone application available on Trapster.com lets drivers use their cellphones to mark a traffic cam or speed trap on a Google map. The information on new locales is sent to Trapster's central computer, and then added to the map.

Other anti-cam Web sites counsel people to examine the pictures that come in the mail with citations. If the facial image is too blurry, they say, drivers can often argue successfully in court that no positive identification has been made of them.

I actually had a student tell me last semester he used to drive around in a hockey mask to defeat the cameras, but ended up getting cited one day for violating another law: it's illegal in Georgia and most other states to wear a mask in public.

Beyond the silliness, there is real data showing these cameras are actually making intersections and driving more dangerous.

Critics point to research showing cameras can actually lead to more rear-end accidents because drivers often slam their brakes when they see signs warning them of cameras in the area. Some research indicates they may increase rear-end collisions as drivers slam on their brakes when they see posted camera notices. A 2005 Federal Highway Administration study of six cities' red-light cameras concluded there was a "modest" economic benefit because a reduction in side crashes due to less red-light running offset the higher costs of more rear-end crashes.
From a participant-observation view, I've noticed the intersection of Alps and Atlanta Highway is far more dangerous now than it used to be since the cameras were installed. People either floor it at unsafe speeds to beat the light or, as the studies show, lock up their wheels on yellow and end up crashing or sliding into the intersection anyway.

In these lean times, I wouldn't expect an easy revenue generator like traffic cameras to disappear anytime soon. But let's at least stop justifying their use with claims that the cameras "improve safety," because the data simply doesn't back that up.

1 comment:

Adam said...

As Foucault stated, we live in the Panopticon.