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Sunday, September 25, 2011

Traffic cameras are no panacea

A red-light camera cannot be begged, bargained,
or pleaded with. It also cannot be interrogated in
a court of law.
Colin Foote's death was tragic and likely avoidable. But a red-light camera would not have changed the outcome.

By Linda Felaco

When I first heard Chief Shippee float the idea of installing red-light cameras on Route 1 at a town council meeting earlier this summer, I thought to myself, Ugh. I leave the big city and it follows me here. But not wishing to publicly disagree with Chief Shippee, who I believe is sincere when he says his interest is in changing driver behavior and not in raising revenue, I kept my opinion to myself.

Then he discussed it again at the September town council meeting, and the faceless CCA masses awoke from their slumber and started agitating on the issue. And some of their comments were so over the top and/or incoherent that I didn't wish to be associated with them even indirectly, so I continued to keep my own council.

But. (You knew there had to be a but, right?)

It seems to me that several important points are being missed in all the emotionality on both sides of the issue. So I'd like us all to take a deep breath, sit back, and consider exactly what will and won't happen if these cameras are installed.

The first and most obvious result will be that tickets will be issued and fines will be paid. But who will be paying those fines? Us, for the most part; there's no feasible way to make the out-of-staters pay the fines if they don't choose to. Sure, we can take away their right to drive in the state of Rhode Island, but I hate to break it to you: We're the smallest state in the union and the easiest to avoid having to drive in.

Now, it's all fine and good for Chief Shippee to say it's not about the money, and I do believe him, but the fact remains that the camera companies most definitely are in it for the money and have no such altruistic motives as traffic safety. So they have a financial incentive to produce "false positives." One of the many ways they rig the system is by shortening yellow lights to "catch" more "red-light runners" who in fact would have stopped had they had enough time to do so. I saw this happen over and over in the D.C. metro area. And then what happens if the company still doesn't get enough revenue to cover the cost of installing the cameras? Do they bill the town for the difference? Do they remove the cameras? Or do they start engaging in mission creep to gin up more revenue, say, by adding speeding cameras as well?

Second, at the risk of sounding like a tinfoil-hatter, a camera is designed to take pictures, period, it's not that they're only able to image the red-light runners. Anyone else who's at the intersection at the same time gets snapped as well. And the cameras can be and are used for general surveillance. I can log onto the traffic cameras in Maryland right now and watch the traffic going through the intersection nearest to my old house. Again, I moved here to get away from the cameras, not to have them follow me here. I was joking when I talked about trash cams. It was my way of saying if we're gonna be stuck with the damn things, let's really put 'em to use.

Third, red lights don't belong on a highway in the first place. The point of a highway is to get where you're going more quickly, not more slowly. If I don't care how long it takes to get where I'm going, I take the back roads, not the highway. In my observation, the problems on Route 1 are largely the result of poor road design, and neither red lights nor cameras are going to fix them. The real problem is that there's no travel lane; at pretty much any given point, you've got traffic entering or exiting either from the right or from the left, or both.*

We all know crossing Route 1 can be fraught with danger. Either an inconsiderate driver refuses to cede the right lane to let you get in (or worse, speeds up to prevent you from getting in ahead of them), or an overly fastidious one stops in the middle of the highway, risking being rear-ended. One of the first things I noticed when I moved back here after driving up and down the Eastern Seaboard for 16 years is, frankly, how piss-poor the road design is in this state. Our roadways require too many lane changes, or lanes end abruptly without warning, inhibiting the smooth flow of traffic and creating opportunities for accidents. Route 1 actually scares me more than the Capital Beltway, and that's really saying something.

In addition, most vehicle engines operate most efficiently at highway speeds, and idling is the biggest fuel waster of all. All those slowdowns and stops not only waste a finite resource but they also add to air pollution.

Fourth, at the risk of sounding like a Charlestown exceptionalist, this is not the big city, and there are differences between Route 1 and, say, the intersection of Westminster and Dorrance in Providence. Like the fact that many people around here drive pickup trucks, which do not exactly stop on a dime, especially when carrying a load. At the risk of incriminating myself, I have found myself in the position of knowing that I can't stop in time for a too-short yellow light and making the choice of trying to cross the intersection as quickly and safely as possible rather than end up stopped in the middle of it.

Fifth, I could be naïve, but I really don't think everyone who runs a red light does so intentionally and is consciously thinking, "I don't care if I kill anyone else as long as I get where I'm going." No, in my observation, the more frequent problem is distracted drivers. When I first heard of a car model being marketed with Facebook access preinstalled, I thought it was a sick joke from The Onion. I know people who frankly and unembarrassedly state that they use their commuting time to catch up on phone calls. What with cell phones, texting, iPods, iPads, DVDs, and so on and so forth, it boggles my mind how people have the manual dexterity to juggle all these gadgets while they're behind the wheel. I can barely turn the volume knob on my stereo without nearly running off the road and once lost a hubcap running up against the curb while reaching for a CD. It's a miracle anyone gets where they're going these days without being killed.** Again, this is not a problem that cameras can solve.

Finally, and I say this with all due respect to the family and friends of Colin Foote, and as someone who also rides a motorcycle  on Route 1 and at every jug handle and dog leg is keenly aware of what happened to Colin, the sad fact is that snapping a picture of Laura Reale's car as it sailed through the red light at West Beach Road would not have saved Colin's life. People can pay traffic-camera fines as many times as they choose without ever having to appear in court because it's a civil penalty and no cop ever caught them in the act. Given Laura Reale's long list of traffic violations, there's no reason to believe one more ticket would have made the difference.

Why Reale was treated so leniently over the years is a puzzlement to me. In several instances, she was able to persuade police officers to write tickets for lower rates of speed than what she was actually clocked at. This might seem to be an argument for cameras, which can't be sweet-talked. Except that cameras also can't be interrogated in a court of law, and under our judicial system, a defendant has the right to be confronted by his or her accusers, so all cameras can do is issue is civil fines, not criminal ones. And the infractions don't appear on the violator's driving record.

I do know for a fact that in Maryland, Reale's sheer number of violations would have meant her having to take remedial traffic safety courses in order to maintain her license. It doesn't appear from the record that other than fines and a measly one-month suspension in 2008, anything was ever done to correct her poor driving habits or, barring that, get her off the road permanently. Had Colin himself had a similar driving record to hers, would he have still been on the road, I have to wonder?

No, the only thing a traffic camera would have done is given the police a way to track Laura Reale down after the fact had she not stopped when she struck Colin Foote, which to her credit she did—unlike a former neighbor of mine who is currently serving a 17-year sentence at the Cranston Hilton for striking and killing a gas station attendant with his car, fleeing the scene, and then shooting the police officer who came to his home to question him about the incident and fleeing in the police vehicle.#

Not everyone who gets a traffic ticket eventually kills someone, or even causes an accident. So in the end, the camera fines will just be another tax on drivers, at a time when many of us can least afford it.

Unquestionably, we would all be safer if the Laura Reales of this world were taken off the road. But there are also thousands of other actions we could take to make our roads safer, including raising the minimum driving age and setting a maximum age.

Would traffic cameras help get the Laura Reales of the world off the road? No, only a judge can take someone off the road, not a camera. Yet the one time she went before a judge, with her record of dozens of infractions and multiple accidents, she was given a mere one-month suspension with apparently no requirement of driver education or community service or any of the other steps taken in other jurisdictions to curb dangerous drivers. This is not a problem that can be solved with cameras.

*I've been told that during the last redesign of Route 1, Planning Commissar Ruth Platner wanted to shut down one lane and turn it into a bike path. Leaving aside the question of why anyone would want to perform physical exertion along a highway, thereby sucking the pollutants that much farther down into their lungs, can you imagine what a death trap the road would have become for both motorists and bicyclists had anyone taken her seriously? I shudder to think.

**Though nationwide, drug deaths have now overtaken traffic fatalities.

Motorcycles are inherently dangerous, as the Utah man shown being rescued in the video above learned earlier this month. Had Colin Foote been riding in the car with his mother and sister rather than on a motorcycle, he might very well be alive today.

The RI Department of Corrections Adult Correctional Institute, Laura Reale's residence until 2018.

#Apparently, the apple indeed does not fall far from the tree: David Catalano is the son of John Catalano, who is serving a life sentence for the 1995 stabbing death of a teenager he was smoking pot with. Both Catalanos are currently in maximum security at the Cranston Hilton.