Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Traffic Cams

Cameras at intersections are appearing everywhere. When I was in high school in North Dallas, the city reassured citizens that city-installed cameras focusing on intersections were solely used by traffic engineers to increase throughput and that they could not be used by police. Of course much has changed since then and now cameras are perched on countless streetlight spans and intersections. Municipalities are using the cameras to ticket motorists both for running red lights and for speeding.

This is the unfortunate intersection of an auto-centric culture and a command-and-control culture. Our cities see these cameras as the only solution to dangerous driving practices. There are, of course, myriad alternative solutions to reduce unsafe motorist behavior.

The problems of speeding and running red lights are design flaws. Speed limits don't reflect the speeds modern cars are capable of traveling on modern roads and our transportation infrastructure, to include trafficlighted intersections, don't serve citizens' needs. Better than a speed limit sign, we should design calmer roads. Traffic engineer Ian Lockwood says "If you design a street like a gun barrel, drivers will drive like bullets." And a traffic light is a poor meter for an intersection. It's been shown that roundabouts actually increase throughput at intersections--and they don't require red-light cameras or traffic tickets!

We're being sold a bill of goods with these traffic cams. There are alternatives to our current infrastructure models, far more effective and safe and pleasant alternatives. And there are alternatives to our enforcement models as well. If we're willing to humbly step back and reevaluate our communities and our infrastructure we might be able to see them. Instead, our city leaders are doing the opposite--they're entrenching.

In Arizona, where the Orwellian Department of Public Safety subcontracts traffic enforcement to the "violation monitoring" firm Redflex, an enraged motorist recently shot and injured a Redflex speed monitor. The DPS public relations officer, Lt. James Warriner blames critics of the program:
Because of (critics’) vocalness, you could almost say they’ve led to this, too - because of their protests, the encouragement of people to strike out.
I think it's sad that our police officers are so preoccupied with traffic enforcement. Why, I wonder, do we insist on keeping such a broken system? I mean, in terms of deployed forces, our daily auto commutes are becoming a war zone. And it's so intense that we're calling in reinforcements--you could easily compare Redflex to Blackwater, the private military firm deployed to augment US forces overseas.

We've delegated authority to our elected leaders and they've in turn delegated that authority to a bunch of techie chuckleheads with buzz cuts. We clearly have a problem: speeding and running lights causes property damage, personal injury and often kills. So we need to address the real problem, that it's so outrageously easy to cause this harm and that speeding and running lights is, until you hurt someone, actually in a motorist's best interests. It's game theory and in micro-instances and the vacuum of an individual commute, this destructive behavior is perfectly rational. We've designed an environment in which it makes sense to constantly endanger each other. We should change that design, not lambast those who argue for the change.