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Monday, September 26, 2011

Red Light Cameras are not a panacea. But then again, nothing is.

They don't have to be perfect to be useful

By Will Collette

My colleague Linda Felaco’s commentary against red-light cameras is well argued, even though I disagree with most of it.

Since the Charlestown Citizens Alliance (CCA) began its recent campaign against red light cameras, I’ve found myself angry and outraged about this issue. I’ve asked myself why this, among all the wrong-headed things the CCA has done, bothers me so much. I have not been injured by a red-light runner nor have any of my family or friends.

I think the difference is that their campaigns against decent toilet facilities at our town beaches, or against wind energy did not involve immediate life or death, while red-light running does. To blithely offer all sorts of inaccurate or inane comments against red light cameras without comment or correction struck me as their most irresponsible move yet.

Of course there are going to be different opinions on the merits of an issue like this. Part of what we do here at Progressive Charlestown is look critically at the arguments, examine the facts and then tell you what we think. We don't just put them all out there like each is of equal merit and weight. So it is with this point-counterpoint exchange between Linda and me.

Responding to Linda's points:.

MURDER. I stipulate to Linda's point that not everyone who runs a red-light intends to commit murder. However, that is the practical effect. I think that every person who decides to gun it through the light rather than stop has put a higher value on their time and convenience than to the lives of people going through the intersection on green. And I think such people should pause and reflect on that.

PANACEA. I stipulate to Linda’s point that red light cameras are not a cure-all for all our traffic safety problems. I never said they were. Obviously, there are numerous approaches needed to make our roads safer.

PROFIT. And I stipulate that the motives of the companies that produce, market and provide the cameras are profit above all else. Linda asks what will happen if Charlestown’s cameras are not profitable. Will the company try to charge us? Will they take the cameras away? Well, they’re not going to charge us unless the contract allows them to do so. Maybe they might choose to pull the cameras out – if the contract permits them to do so, so be it. The devil is in the details and Linda’s points are fair points to watch if and when the town does the deal. If the town negotiates a lousy one-sided contract, shame on us – and on our Town Solicitor whose job is to review the contract.

DISTRACTIONS. I stipulate to Linda’s point that many red light runners do so because of other causes like distractions (cell phones, texting, eating, talking, sleeping, etc. or being drunk, stoned or otherwise impaired) and perhaps don’t have murder in mind. But that’s a distinction without a difference to the person who gets t-boned. Plus, the driver chooses whether or not to yap on the cell, text, tune the radio, pop in a CD or drive impaired while cruising Route One at 65 mph.

The German autobahn - not to be confused
with US Route 1 in Charlestown
ROAD DESIGN: I stipulate to Linda’s argument about poor road design. Sure, Rhode Island roads are crappy. I wish taxpayers would recognize the need to pony up the tax dollars to fix them. Bad roads and bad driving are certainly causes of bad accidents, but not really relevant points on the merits of red light cameras. US Route 1 ceased to be a “highway” when RIDOT spent millions to install the red lights and reconfigure the turns. We can’t pretend US Route 1 in Charlestown is the German autobahn. Nor do we have the money to make it like the autobahn. We must drive on US Route 1 as it as, not as we wish it to be.

SCOFFLAWS. I stipulate to Linda’s point that some people caught by red light cameras will ignore the ticket and not pay it, and that out-of-staters are more likely than others to do that. But so what? Lots of parking tickets and tickets issued in a live traffic stop or by a meter reader get ignored as well, especially by visitors. That some people tear up tickets is not a good reason to stop issuing the tickets. It is an argument to go after them.

PRIVACY. Linda raises the point about privacy. So did a lot of the CCA commenters. I don’t accept that as a legitimate concern for two reasons. (1) It’s too late for that. Go on Google Earth (download it if you haven't already). Enter your address. You will see an aerial photo of your home – and you may even see one of yourself. Google just missed me carrying groceries into the house – they show our car with the doors door open as they would be after a shopping trip. Google Earth probably has several street-level pictures of your property and your house, and again, maybe you or someone in your family. The cameras are all around us already, even in rural Charlestown. (2) What is your reasonable expectation of privacy while you are driving on a public road. Answer: none. Add the element of being on a public road and committing a crime. What right of privacy do you think you have? Red light cameras in other jurisdictions can and do photograph other crimes – they are often used during Amber Alerts. Again, when you are on a public road, what is your expectation of privacy?

DUE PROCESS: Linda argues people have a right to confront their accusers in court and you can’t do that with red light cameras. That argument is a red herring. Courts accept and juries convict on evidence written on paper, recorded on tape recorders or video cameras, photographed, caught on a cell phone, obtained through a legal wiretap, captured by radar as well as many other media. The accused don’t get to cross-examine the recording media but they do have the right for proof such evidence can be authenticated and was gathered legally. And they can challenge the interpretation of these forms of evidence.

APPROPRIATENESS. Linda makes the related points that red light cameras don’t belong in rural areas nor on a highway. The only relevance I see to the rural issue is whether red light cameras are financially viable for Charlestown. But if we can get them at our Route One intersections, what does rural have to do with it? As for whether they belong on a “highway,” as I noted above under “Road Design,” US Route 1 in Charlestown stopped being a highway when we installed the red lights. A more relevant question is whether installing the red lights was such a great idea. But, largely for fiscal reasons, even that question is irrelevant because it’s too late to go back.

Laura Reale, Colin Foote's killer
COLIN FOOTE. I also stipulate to Linda’s point that a red light camera would not have stopped Laura Reale from killing Colin Foote at West Beach and Route One in May, 2010. Reale was a determined criminal driver who used her wits, and reportedly the intervention of a powerful relative, to avoid losing her license for her repeated offenses. Reports on her history show that she was often able to talk police officers out of ticketing her or into writing the ticket for a lesser offense or simply letting her off with a warning. One of the virtues of red light cameras is that you can’t name-drop or sweet talk them to get out of the citation. Maybe Reale might have run up enough camera tickets to be stopped before she had the chance to kill Colin. More likely, those cameras might dissuade other dangerous drivers to change their behavior. And that was Chief Shippee’s main argument.

Like most issues, red light cameras are not a black and white matter. Like jmost problem-solving technology, red light cameras are not the perfect, risk-free cure-all we would wish for. But the arguments in favor of the cameras vastly overwhelm the opposing arguments and that's why we use risk-benefit analysis to guide important decisions. I respect Linda’s point of view, but I don’t agree with it.