Viewpoint: Traffic cameras stir protest

July 1, 1993

Viewpoint: Traffic cameras stir protest

By Joe Baker

Traffic cameras stir protests

By Joe Baker

Senior Editor

One aspect of technology is increasingly coming into conflict with American citizens. Those small cameras you’ve seen posted at many intersections in U.S. cities see you, too.

Supposedly, police in these communities are using these cameras in an effort to combat drivers who run red lights. Thousands are caught daily in some 60 cities across the country. San Diego, Calif. has cameras at 19 intersections. They issue more than 60,000 tickets a year to signal violators.

Some 80 percent of these cameras are owned and operated by Lockheed Martin IMS. More cities reportedly are asking for them.

About 800 people are killed each year by drivers trying to “beat the light,” and another 200,000 are injured. Many of the victims are pedestrians.

The cameras are nothing new. They have been in operation for at least 10 years. But objections are growing. More than 300 Californians have gone to court to protest tickets based on traffic camera photos.

Many drivers don’t believe the cameras are foolproof, that there’s something in the programming that gives a false result. One lawyer who has represented many of these motorists noted that in any other criminal case, the defendant has the right to face his or her accuser, but in these cases the accuser is a camera.

The attorney said most of his clients contend that the cameras can send erroneous information to authorities and that they don’t show who is driving. He said some who got tickets were not driving the car. He said the tickets are sent to the registered owner no matter who was driving.

What of the increased costs and revenue derived from these cameras? Did voters give permission for this increase? Isn’t this more taxation without representation?

More and more drivers are charging the red light cameras are unconstitutional, a misuse of police power, and are designed to collect revenue, not to improve safety.

The growing criticism of the system prompted San Diego police to check their cameras and sensors. They found some sensors in the street had been moved, which

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puts the data from the cameras into question. The city ended up shutting down all its cameras and ordering a complete check of the system. Fines that had been collected were refunded.

U.S. House Majority Leader Dick Armey raised the wrath of traffic engineers nationwide when he presented a report on the issue, charging that engineers had shortened the yellow light time at intersections with cameras. Armey said that produces more rear-end collisions and generates more fines.

Traffic engineers say there is no question that the cameras cut down the number of red light violators and improve public safety.

One of the worst cities for red-light running is Phoenix, Ariz. and its suburbs. In nearby Mesa, police said fatal accidents from this cause went down from 20 in 1995 to eight last year. The cameras caught 10 Mesa police officers running the lights. The cops have gone to court to fight the tickets, just like everyone else.

As if that isn’t enough invasion of privacy, Tampa, Fla. has adopted a camera system that is a heavy dose of Big Brotherism. Police there are using a methodology that snaps pictures of people on the street in that city’s nightclub district.

The area attracts between 75,000 and 150,000 persons each weekend. The cameras photograph faces, and computers use a software program to compare them to a database that includes runaways and wanted criminals. The special program analyzes 80 points of the face to make identifications.

About 100 people protested the new system. One woman showed up with a bar code sticker on her forehead. She believes being watched on a public street is wrong.

Protesters wore gas masks, Groucho glasses and other disguises to protest the system. One walked by a camera, made a lewd gesture, and yelled: “Digitize this!” Another had a sign reading: “We’re under house arrest in the land of the free.”

Tampa is the only place with the face recognition technology so far, but Virginia Beach, Va. has asked for a state grant to install a similar system.

How far do we go with this nonsense? Will the next step be some kind of camera system that peeks in our windows? Oops, they can already do that—thermal imaging technology can watch you from a van in front of your house.

The men who founded this country wisely placed restrictions on the legal system, but we have gotten far away from those principles. Did you know that U.S. courts are technically under the jurisdiction of the United Nations?

What if a U.S. K.G.B., C.I.A Putin, or whatever any shrub-like name, wants to know what you have for breakfast? What’s to stop him from peering at you through the satellite/traffic lens to find out?

The technology discussed here could be a useful tool for law enforcement, provided it does not intrude on the privacy of the law-abiding citizen. So far, we have no guarantees that that will be the case.

There also are those in the traffic engineering field who maintain these cameras are not necessary if traffic signals are properly timed. We haven’t been in that condition in many a year.

Our lawmakers in Washington ought to make a thorough and unbiased study of this issue (HA!) and then establish some limits for this sort of thing. Some requirements should be set to ensure that the aims of law enforcement do not tread on the rights of the citizenry. Good luck to us all.

Speaking of the fair way, since the government can watch us, when do we get complete Internet financial disclosure from the government and attached officials—so we can watch them? While we’re at it, video cameras in all courtroom proceedings and cable broadcasts make great lessons in civics. Video tapes of confessions from the very first of the interview to the end would be elevating as well. Fair is fair.

When will a coalition get together to keep Big Brother grounded, nationally, state-wide and locally? Or do you just like to be watched?

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