2007-02-23 / Columnists

It's My Turn

Are Red Light Cameras A Sign Of The Coming Surveillance State?

John WhiteheadJohn Whitehead Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. He can be contacted at johnw@rutherford.org . Information about The Rutherford Institute is available at www.rutherford.org.

"There was, of course, no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. ... 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." - George Orwell, 1984

The renowned media analyst Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase "the medium is the message." His point was that emerging technologies do more than facilitate processes- they impact us on a deeper level by altering how we think and act.

By understanding the message, we can better understand its consequences for the future. For example, when the gun was invented, the "message" was not that this portable metal cylinder could fire a bullet but that it made murder more accessible and dehumanized the process of killing someone. This in turn made war, carnage and violence more likely resolutions to conflicts. Likewise, the invention of television was more than a means of broadcasting news and entertainment; it has led to a couch-potato culture and a dumbing down of the American mind.

This brings us to the debate currently underway over the use of red-light surveillance cameras at traffic intersections as a way to discourage drivers from running red lights. First, there is the safety issue. Considering that more than 850 people die and about 170,000 are injured yearly in accidents relating to drivers running red lights, improving driver safety is a weighty concern.

While some studies suggest that rear-end crashes rise, at least temporarily, when traffic cameras are installed, deadly side-impact crashes decline. And two new studies suggest that the surveillance cameras, when properly implemented, may be an effective way to curtail red-light running. For instance, one of the studies found that violations dropped by 36% after yellow lights were extended to give drivers more warning that the light was about to turn red. After red-light cameras were added, remaining violations dropped by 96%.

Second is a concern about how money generated from the cameras will be used. Critics contend that these red-light cameras could become money-generating traps, "cash machines for money-hungry local budgets." There is certainly money to be made. For example, in just the first six years after installing red-light cameras in the nation's capital, the District of Columbia generated $32 million in fines.

Third is a concern about potential abuse since state and local governments aren't the only ones that will profit. As one commentator explains, "The manufacturers of red-light and speed cameras typically sell their equipment to cities and receive a large percentage of the revenue from each ticket, creating a billion-dollar industry." Eric Skrum, Communications Director for the National Motorists Association, has suggested that Lockheed Martin, one of the largest government contractors in the country and one of the biggest manufacturers of red-light cameras in the U.S., has a vested interest in red-light fines since "the company doesn't get paid unless a ticket is issued."

Fourth is a concern about the appeals process. The absence of human involvement- a police officer who witnesses a violation and investigates before issuing a ticket- is one factor. The cameras are not infallible. For example, approximately 13,000 drivers received tickets by cameras located at one particular Washington, D.C. intersection- the only problem: they weren't guilty because the red-light cameras at the particular intersection were wrongly positioned. Another factor is cost. A final concern is that Americans are increasingly having to prove their innocence as the traditional standard of criminal justice- you're innocent until proven guilty- is nullified. We all want safer roads- and that starts with safer drivers. If red-light cameras are an effective solution, that's fine. However, it wouldn't hurt for communities to put some other safety checks in place such as extending the duration of yellow lights to give drivers more warning; ensuring that red-light cameras are only snapping photos and not carrying out constant video surveillance; making the appeals process more accessible by reducing or eliminating altogether any fees involved in challenging a signal ticket; and structuring the system in such a way that the fines pay for the cost of the system, rather than creating a profit-raising revenue stream for the government and its contractors. On a more philosophical note, before we travel too far down the slippery slope of embracing a surveillance state, we should ask ourselves: If surveillance devices are the "medium," whether we're talking about red-light cameras at traffic intersections, surveillance cameras in parks and sidewalks or monitoring of our telephone calls and emails, then what is the message? Although stop-light cameras are probably the least invasive of these devices, the undeniable message being communicated is that we're constantly being watched, tracked and catalogued.

Any expectation of privacy will eventually go down the drain, and with it any sense of true freedom.

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