Speed Cameras, Metal Satans?

“For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.”

– H. L. Mencken

By Winston Smith


The sight of them causes hearts to speed up, feet to slam, and tires to screech. They cause frustration, road rage, yelling, and not looking your fellow drivers in the eye. No, they aren’t Donald Trump bumper stickers, TruckNutz, or elderly drivers. They’re speed cameras. A traffic enforcement technology which leaves little room for fence sitting.

We all have opinions on these cameras: they don’t stop accidents, they aren’t accurate, they aren’t legal, or you just simply don’t like them because of freedom. It’s hard not to have opinions at this point since many of us live in states with speed cameras. While speed cameras receive a lot of hate, should we not first find out if they are effective? When not being cut off by oblivious drivers, it’s this writer’s experience that the things just go off whenever they feel like, especially red light cameras, which I’m sure are a whole other can of worms. So let’s take a dive and see if speed cameras are actually worth the metal they’re made of.

In the December 14, 1961, issue of New Scientist, the introduction of the speed camera to law enforcement was reported. First adopted by Dutch police forces, this original speed trap was incredibly primitive compared to the standard today. This speed trap made use of a relay box, a time counter, two pneumatic switches, and two rubber tubes that would be stretched and anchored across a roadway. This device was created by Gastometer, a company founded in 1958 by Maurice Gatsonides, a champion rally driver and the winner of the Monte Carlo Rally in 1953. Safe to say, a fan of speed. Now Gastometer produces all types of traffic enforcement cameras, but they first introduced a device utilizing radar in 1968. It was not until 1980 that a radar speed camera was built into a vehicle. From there on, Gastometer continued to improve their product to what we have today with their most recent products being the ‘GS11’ digital camera, ‘GUI’ display unit, and ‘GTC-GS11’ digital red light and speed camera, many of which we face on the road every day.

Speed cameras were first introduced in the United States in 1987, specifically in Paradise Valley, Arizona. Following Paradise Valley, “[a]t least 92 jurisdictions (state and local) have adopted automatic enforcement, although speed cameras are not as widely used as red-light cameras.” As of February 2017, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Highway Loss Data Institute reports that 426 communities have red light camera programs, 142 communities have speed camera programs, 23 states and the District of Columbia use red light cameras and 14 of those states, including the District of Columbia, also utilize speed cameras. Believe me, I’ve tried most of them.

Since there’s a lot of them, are they effective or is it more of a feel-good move? I mean, it makes sense that installing an automated, 24/7 traffic monitoring device would have the effect of reducing motor vehicle collisions (MVCs)? Right? A study of relevant studies, oh what fun, titled “Do speed cameras reduce road traffic crashes, injuries and deaths?” was published in 2012, with content assessed as up-to-date as of May 3, 2010, sought to find out this answer. This study accepted a total of 35 previously conducted studies for review. What’s important to note is that the authors state that all studies collected reported a reduction in average speeds after the implementation of speed cameras. After their review of their study group, the writers concluded that:

Despite the methodological limitations and the variability in degree of signal to noise effect, the consistency of reported reductions in speed and crash outcomes across all studies show that speed cameras are a worthwhile intervention for reducing the number of road traffic injuries and deaths.

But all is not lost, lovers of freedom! The study has a few key limitations:

However, whilst the evidence base clearly demonstrates a positive direction in the effect, an overall magnitude of this effect is currently not deducible due to heterogeneity and lack of methodological rigour. More studies of a scientifically rigorous and homogenous nature are necessary, to provide the answer to the magnitude of effect.

So where does that leave us? Well, it is no longer 2010 and we’ve decided to throw some more money at this question. Enter “Do Speed Cameras Reduce Collisions?,” a study conducted by the Association for the Advancement of Automotive Medicine published in 2013. This article summarizes the findings from a study of speed camera implementation on I-10 in urban Phoenix, AZ. This study examined three 9 month periods of varying speed camera use; pre-cameras, cameras, and post-cameras. While the article is free for all to read, the writers conclude:

Although, exact traffic volume was not examined, after accounting for MVC increases in the control segment we found that neither camera placement nor removal had an independent impact on MVCs. In other words, speed cameras did not statistically contribute to an increase or decrease in the number of MVC.

Unfortunately, in good conscience, I can’t lead you to believe that this settles the score. In June 2013 the RAC Foundation published their analysis of speed camera data collected in Britain. This analysis was conducted by Professor Richard Allsop who reviewed data from 551 speed cameras in 9 areas around Britain. What this study found was that “on average the number of fatal and serious collisions in their vicinity fell by more than a quarter (27%) after their installation.” In addition, “[t]here was also an average reduction of 15% in personal injury collisions in the vicinity of the 551 cameras.”  What is possibly the even more interesting finding was that:

However the research also highlights 21 camera sites (in these areas) at which, or near which, the number of collisions appears to have risen enough to make the cameras worthy of investigation in case they have contributed to the increases.

Now that only accounts for a little over 25% of the studied speed cameras, that’s still significant. This as noted by the writer, this begs the question that could placement of a speed camera increase the incidence of accidents? Are the discrepancies due to the type of roadway, residential vs. highway, due to differences in driving styles by country, or some other explanation? What is known, though, is that it seems as though there is not a definite answer on how effective speed cameras are.

This writer, and possibly even you, know some who believe that speed cameras are illegal. Shouldn’t it be a human being, an officer of the law, applying the relevant statute to me in keeping with local, state and national regulations, not to mention common sense? Now flippantly, if Tom approached me and was angry that he got a ticket from a speed camera, I probably wouldn’t be too empathetic at the outrage of the speed camera catching him. If your argument about getting out of a ticket is that you would’ve gotten away with it if it weren’t for the meddling speed cameras, you might want to reevaluate your strategy. But, is there a legitimate argument that speed cameras should not be legal?

Take, for example, the state of Maryland. According to a 2014 Washington Post article and the Governors Highway Safety Association, to get caught by the speed camera, a motorist must be going at least 12 miles over the posted speed limit. If caught, the registered owner, not necessarily the driver, is issued a citation of $40 with no points. Maryland law also makes speed camera contractors “pay damages if more than 5 percent of the camera tickets are issued erroneously” and “[a] jurisdiction using speed cameras must designate an employee to act as a sort of ombudsman for people who complain about citations. If the employee determines the ticket was issued in error, the employee can void the citation. (This is in addition to the District Court review, which is still available to people who get speed camera citations.)” To me, the pinnacle of a reasonable person, it seems to me that these restrictions aren’t too draconian. But even if the laws aren’t awful, is there even the legal authority to have these cameras operate in some type of law enforcement capacity?

In his article titled “Speeding Camera Ticket? Not So Fast,” lawyer Brett Snider outlines some arguments against the use of speed cameras. The first is that the tickets issued by speed cameras lack foundation as no person issues the ticker, some have made the legal challenge that the ticket is hearsay. In addition to this,  some believe that you may object to the speed camera “as both hearsay and a violation of the right to confront the witness against her.” There are also some judges that have ruled against the use of speed cameras. One of the most notable examples is a judge in New Mexico who ruled against the use of speed cameras as Judge Manual I. Arrieta found that the use of speed cameras violated due process rights. A report created by D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles shows that for FY 2013, 35% of adjudicated photo tickets were dismissed. Many states have outlawed the use of speed cameras; “13 states have passed laws that prohibit (with very narrow exceptions) the use of speed cameras… All other states either permit the use of speed cameras (2 + D.C.) or limit their use by location or other criteria (7 + U.S. Virgin Islands).” What is clear is that use of speed cameras for enforcement is hotly debated and is by no way settled. For the time being, it seems as though with many of these machine-issued tickets, they are ripe for challenge.

So next time Tom comes to me with more speed camera woes, I may be a little more empathetic. Remember, the best way to not have to deal with these issues is to follow the posted speed limit and when grandma is going 20 in a 50 take a deep breath and know that at least you aren’t going to have to challenge a ticket.


Photo Credit: http://www.citizenstoabolishredlightcameras.com/

2 thoughts on “Speed Cameras, Metal Satans?

  1. Speed cameras produce profits above their own high costs ONLY when used in areas where the posted limits are set less-safely, artificially-low, at least 10 mph below the safest levels – the 85th percentile speeds of free flowing traffic under good conditions. Example: If 85% of the cars are at or under 45 mph, then the safest limit to post for the fewest crashes is 45 — NOT 40 or 35 or 30 or 25. At such a location, you would find a speed camera ONLY if the limit is improperly and less-safely set at 35 mph or lower. If the limit were correctly set at 45 to maximize safety and minimize crashes, there would not be enough violators for the total fines to even come close to paying the costs of the cameras, let alone produce the profits that are the true purpose for speed cameras.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association


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