The (Possible) Link between Traffic Cameras and the Events in Ferguson

I am reposting the original post on traffic cameras from several months ago based on events in Ferguson.  But one does not have to agree with the violence to understand that what happened has a deep context.  I do think that Alex Tabbarrok of Marginal Revolution is on to something when he links the uprising in Ferguson in part with the problem of ciies using criminal activity to fund their budgets.

He writes,

Ferguson is a city located in northern St. Louis County with 21,203 residents living in 8,192 households. The majority (67%) of residents are African-American…22% of residents live below the poverty level.

…Despite Ferguson’s relative poverty, fines and court fees comprise the second largest source of revenue for the city, a total of $2,635,400. In 2013, the Ferguson Municipal Court disposed of 24,532 warrants and 12,018 cases, or about 3 warrants and 1.5 cases per household.

As Tabarrok comments,

You get numbers like this from %$!@ arrests for jaywalking and constant “low level harassment involving traffic stops, court appearances, high fines, and the threat of jail for failure to pay.”

The full post is here, and worth 3 minutes of your time.  I think the link between traffic cameras and Ferguson are the inherent problems embedded within governments seeking to profit from crime.  It opens the door to a whirlwind of abuses and unintended consequences.

And now, the original traffic camera post . . .

I have never been a fan of traffic cameras.  I suppose that they might hypothetically serve a good purpose at a very limited number of places, such as schools and dangerous intersections.  Maybe.  Hypothetically.

But I find their proliferation, along with the growth of the security-through-technology trend, disturbing for a variety of reasons.

Many hope and believe that the cameras will make our roads safer, but we should realize that the stated purpose may also involve raising revenue.  While I have no love for D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray’s assertion that he would like to see many more cameras in D.C., he at least had the openness to admit that the traffic cameras would go a long way towards balancing the budget.

There is a baseness, a dullness (for lack of a better word), and a real potential for the state to become the ultimate prig* when it uses people’s misdeeds to raise money.  Can we not create or build anything anymore?   Granted, this argument is in the end an “aesthetic” one and can’t be measured.  You feel it or you don’t.  But there are some parallels in other areas of life.  We know that lotteries tend to work against the poor, but states use them to raise money for schools or other social programs.  The state must ask itself, “Do we want people to play the lottery or not?”

We know the detrimental impact of institutionalized gambling but many states use slot machines to raise revenue.  I remember visiting a casino years ago, and there are few sights more depressing in my memory than seeing the blank faces of the “slot jockeys” mechanically pulling the lever time after time.  Maybe the state shouldn’t ban such behavior, but I am not comfortable with them profiting from it either.

The whole idea of a “vice tax” is a very old one, but seems to cut against the very idea of civil government’s purpose in creating a social order that discourages bad behavior.  Perhaps there is some room for a detterence role in these kinds of taxes.  Yet there is the very real possibility that states who rely on such things to raise money and actually balance budgets may want people to engage in those behaviors.

If counties want to use traffic cameras to help their budgets, do they want motorists to speed or not?  Do they, in fact, need motorists to speed to balance the books?  If we answer “yes,” then we only have a small leap to envision the state manipulating speed limits, roads, intersections, etc. to make sure they meet their quota.

But many will say that these arguments reside in the pure hypothetical and will want more concrete objections.

The ACLU has a good and brief piece here detailing their objections to speed cameras, arguing among other things that they violate the principle of “innocent until proven guilty.”  Traffic cameras automatically suppose that the owner of the car is driving the car, a reasonable though not absolute assumption.  But it you are not driving the car the burden is upon you to prove your innocence.  This burden would be quite unjust especially for someone from out of town.  If the fine was, say, $60 it would cost much more than that for the car owner from another locale to come to court and prove he was not driving.  He will simply pay the fine.  We understand that no perfect criminal justice system exists, and that some innocent people will be convicted unjustly.  But we should not set up a system where an unjust result is practically guaranteed on occasion.

Debate also exists as to how much safer traffic cameras actually make roads.  Wired Magazine cites this study showing how cameras at intersections have actually increased accidents.  Others counter that we can accept an increase  of “fender-benders” to decrease fatalities.  I agree, but that that assumes a false dilemma.  Increasing the length of time for yellow lights, for example, might accomplish the same purpose, and while a reckless drunk driver might not heed a longer yellow, neither would they heed traffic cameras.  Marginal Revolution

I trust I am no conspiracy theorist, but my final objection does involve the slippery-slope.  The Washington Post’s Michael Rosenwald  wrote a piece about Prince George’s County response to vandalism of its cameras:

They put up a cameras to monitor the camera.  

And from Marginal Revolution, this recent piece tells of some places shortening yellow lights for cash.

For the cost of the cameras the county could have instead hired a police officers to monitor the intersections instead.  And this gets to my final objection.  We should have no interest in contracting out our security to machines.  One can appeal to a police officer, and police often come from the communities in which they work.  Their judgments are fallible, yes, but when they make poor judgments they can be held accountable, unlike machines.

Thus ends my mild attack.  But maybe both sides are wrong when it comes to solving traffic problems.  Maybe we need an entirely new approach. . .

*Some years ago a friend of mine was driving south on Rt. 29 at night in a county that will remain nameless.  He received a citation for “Failure to Dim” (!) his headlights.   Of course the ticket itself was about $30, but add a $55 processing fee, and you have a very expensive “Failure to Dim.”

It turns out that this county raises a good portion of its revenue through traffic citations.  Considering that he was driving a rental car (he lives in the mid-west) and would certainly not return to challenge the citation in court, well, things begin to add up.