Automated enforcement of speed limits and red lights could substantially reduce accidents. So far, we have not been willing to use the new technology in Massachusetts. To improve safety, I hope we can build support to experiment with automated enforcement in a thoughtful and transparent way.
The technology to recognize license plates is now quite reliable. The barriers to using plate readers for enforcement of basic traffic laws are not technological.
Nor are the barriers financial. Appropriately placed automated enforcement tools could easily pay for themselves.
The barriers are legal and political. Implementation of automated enforcement requires state legislation to define a new procedure for attaching fines to violations. The legal problem is that, in the absence of an officer pulling someone over, it is impossible to know who was driving the vehicle. So, we would have to hold the vehicle owner responsible, but there is no currently mechanism to do that for moving violations.
The necessary legislative action has not been forthcoming. The issue has been kicking around the legislature for a decade.
Most of us are accustomed to making personal decisions about whether or not we can or should attempt to get away with a close push on a red light or a speed five or ten miles per hour above the speed limit. The fact is that police resources are very limited and millions of traffic violations go undetected or ignored every day on the roads of the Commonwealth.
Many of the laws we have in place are not consistent with driver behavior and the lack of enforcement is what keeps people from rebelling. For example, the new 25 mph limit in densely settled areas is slower than most drivers tend to go on many urban roads. I support the lower limit because the safety benefits of lower speeds are huge – accidents are less frequent and less severe. But I’m conscious that on many urban roads, most drivers will continue to go 40.
If municipalities had the authority to implement automated enforcement, there is a concern that they might use it to create revenue-producing speed traps, or through a clumsy roll-out end up issuing tickets to thousands of people, provoking a backlash (as recently occurred in Providence).
In addition to the legitimate reservations that some legislators may have about over-enforcement, privacy advocates are concerned about the expansion of cameras and the accumulation of data about the movement of drivers. This is indeed a legitimate concern, but it is one that can be addressed by clear rules and automatic deletion of records not needed for the prosecution of particular violations.
People concerned about over-enforcement and the “big brother” accumulation of data often also raise questions about how effective the tools are in changing behavior. In my mind, the effectiveness depends on practical decisions made in the roll-out. Where are the cameras placed? To what extent do drivers have advance warning? It seems beyond reasonable dispute that a good implementation with fair enforcement goals could change behavior in positive ways.
We included authorization for local use of automated enforcement by municipalities in the Act to Reduce Traffic Fatalities — an omnibus traffic safety bill that a group of safety advocates developed. The proposal attempts to address many of the privacy and fairness concerns that have been raised. The larger bill is still moving, but without the controversial red light provisions.
I do intend to continue to pursue the issue of automated enforcement, but I recognize that it needs a broad discussion and we cannot do it without broad popular support. Your thoughts much appreciated. I would especially appreciate thoughts on how to target automated enforcement and how to make it work fairly.
Automated Enforcement in the Act to Reduce Traffic Fatalities
Section 22 of the act defines the enforcement proposal. The key features are:
- A municipality could not use the tool until it obtains approval from its town meeting or city council.
- Automated enforcement could be used for a speeding violation over 5 mph above the limit, failure to stop at a red light, failure to stop for by a stopped school bus or an illegal turn on red.
- Limitation to one fixed camera per 2500 residents in a town, provided that cameras installed at the 200 most dangerous intersections in the Commonwealth would not count against that.
- Photographic images may only be captured of the rear of the vehicle, to protect the privacy of the occupants of the vehicle.
- Signage must notify drivers of the presence of the road safety camera and there must be a public awareness campaign beginning at least 30 days before the enforcement program begins.
- The maximum penalty shall not be over $50 and it shall be a civil penalty assessed on the owner, but shall not count for insurance purposes.
- Enforcement notices should be sent by first class mail to the owner and may be contested.
- No liability will attach if the vehicle was stolen or rented or if the operator gets separately stopped and ticketed by the police or if the violation was necessary to allow an emergency vehicle to pass, etc
- Compensation to the suppliers of the equipment cannot be based on the volume of revenue the equipment generates.
- No less than 80% of the proceeds of the ticketing must be devoted to road improvements.
- All records from the enforcement system shall be destroyed within 48 ours of final disposition of any recorded event and will not be used or shared for any other purpose.
- Center for Disease Control Fact Sheet on automated speed cameras as a health intervention.
- American Civil Liberties Union blog post on license plate recognition and privacy.
- GATSO-USA — a manufacturer of automated enforcement tools
- Insurance Institute for Highway Safety — national overview on automated enforcement
- Insurance Institute for Highway Safety — red light running
- Globe story about high ticket rate in Providence after roll out of automated enforcement — a story of how not to do it.
- Earlier posts on this site contra red light cameras
Informal Poll Result
800 subscribers to my news list (subscribe here) responded to the following poll (with question order rotated).
Which statement best summarizes your views about automatic traffic enforcement:
I’m really concerned about the invasion of privacy and the possibility of over enforcement of traffic laws with cameras. I don’t want “big brother” watching my every move.
We need to stop the carnage on the roadways. Too many people drive way too fast. If automatic enforcement will mean better driver behavior, I’m all for it.
I’m not sure. The devil is in the details. I don’t want to vote. I’d prefer to consider and discuss the issue.
The responses broke down as follows: No/privacy, 38%; Yes/safety, 31%; Maybe/details, 31%.
We can’t get too far ahead of the public on enforcement matters: Automated enforcement is a tool that we need to use with great caution and concern for fairness.