The Edge of the Wedge for Photo Radar

by Aarne Frobom

Machine-issued traffic tickets are a rarity in the United States. In most places, it's not possible to be convicted of a traffic violation without a human witness to the alleged offense. Cameras actuated by radar guns or detectors at stop lights can't yet be used to issue tickets. Most Americans don't like the idea.

That could change.

Insurance companies, police agencies, and equipment salesmen are trying to reverse American opinion on machine-issued tickets. Their strategy is to use conspicuous, emotional issues as a wedge for forcing photo radar into the traffic law of every state.

Although most people remain opposed to photo radar, its friends have found that if the idea is packaged right, it can be sold. People are more willing to buy the idea if it's advertised as a solution to an emotional issue.

Among the real or manufactured safety problems that are being suggested as excuses for ticket machines are: speeding in school zones, running red lights, speeding in construction zones, speeding in residential areas, crosswalks and turning violations in commercial districts, and railroad crossings.

Some of these are serious problems, and radar salesmen know that it's almost impossible to argue against enforcement of the law where school children or pedestrians are involved. They also know that once automated ticketing is legalized in one instance, it can be made to apply to all cases.

The strategy can be seen in action. In New York and Ohio, bills in the state legislature would legalize photo radar in construction zones. In Michigan, the State Police conducted an opinion survey to find where photo radar is most acceptable: in school zones, at construction sites, or in residential areas. Safety wasn't the purpose of the taxpayer-financed research; politics was.

Sometimes, it's proposed that machine-issued tickets not be used to issue driver's license points or raise insurance premiums, to make the idea still more palatable. Or, it may be promised that the radar guns will only ticket drivers going 10 or 15 mph over the speed limit.

Although most people remain opposed to photo radar
its friends have found that if the idea is packaged right,
it can be sold.

Once the legal precedent is in place, it won't take long for it to be exploited to the fullest. The lure of ticket revenue will be irresistible to governments that live off of traffic fines. Cameras will appear at every possible location, and superfluous stop signs and artificially low speed limits will multiply. Digital (rather than film-using) cameras will make the system cheaper. And all the while, the real causes of most traffic accidents will remain unaffected.

But the rapacity of the system may be its undoing, and where the people make themselves heard, there is always hope. In Ontario, photo radar was installed on the province's busiest freeway. Once the revenue started rolling in by the millions, plans were made to extend the system to other roads. At first, radar guns set off the cameras when they spotted a car going well over the speed limit. Within weeks, the operators discovered that they could generate more revenue with the turn of a knob, and the tolerance was turned down to 10 kph (that's 6.2 miles per hour to those of us south of the border). But then, Ontario's government changed. The first act of Ontario's new Conservative government was to outlaw photo radar.

With a little work, we can prevent things from going so far in the U.S. NMA members should be alert for the thin edge of the photo radar wedge in their states.

Source: July/August 1996 NMA News

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