Saturday, 4 June 2016

Automatic enforcement cameras

There is often a lot of buzz, especially in the news, about automatic traffic enforcement cameras. I have some words to say about it.

The idea is that a camera is fixed in a certain positions with some sensors on or near the road to determine whether anyone has committed a traffic offense. For example a radar system to measure speed and a camera to record which vehicle, and in some cases which driver (if the vehicle is the target not the drive then the owner of the vehicle is fined unless they can prove who did drive it when the offense happened). It's fairly common, you see it around the city quite a lot.

Police have fairly limited time to stop traffic for common offenses like speed or red light running, they could use their time more effectively by pulling over people who are unlikely to be caught in other ways like DUIs, and by pulling over drivers they are actually putting themselves in quite a lot of risk, both from the passing traffic and also because the suspect may be actually going to try to attack them. The police don't know who's who in the vehicle. And if the cop hears a slobbering enough story or is emotionally swayed, they are more likely to be a bit too lenient.

Many people oppose these cameras. A common argument is that red light cameras have the amber light set too short. Now if that is indeed true from the programming of the lights, then you have a case and should go to court over it, you also have the right to inspect the programming. But if the lights meet best practices standard, legal requirements for amber time, usually 3 seconds (3 seconds is enough for a car at 70 km/h to stop from full speed, even assuming a second of that is thinking time, although for safety I'd use 5 seconds for speeds over 50), then it's pretty obvious. You broke the law. You signed the agreement when you got your license to drive that you'd obey the rules of the road, and you seriously endanger other road users by not obeying red lights correctly in a car or other motor vehicle, and often yourself. Even if you didn't sign that agreement, you still broke the laws, and common sense. You should be penalized. Not with jail, a fine proportional to income, some demerits and maybe a traffic class should be enough.

And whoever's idea it was to pay a red light camera ticket in pennies, you were being very mean to the clerk you gave the pennies to, she wasn't a judge, she couldn't do anything about your fine. Give the pennies to the judge instead if you want to protest the ticket. Good thing that in Canada, pennies aren't legal tender if you use more than 40 at once, and similar limits apply to other low denominations as well. Well, they don't have to accept them.

Another common argument in relation to speed is that the design speed, or speed at which the traffic is flowing, is much higher than the legal limit. I sympathize you on this one. Much of the time the design speed indeed is higher. The design principles we have need to reflect this. However, once you leave the area in which it is indeed safe to go the design speed, for example 130 km/h on a motorway designed for 130 without competing traffic, and are suddenly in a school zone, going 50 in a 30 limited area, you do have to slow down. There are overpowering reasons for not going the 85th percentile. Photo enforcement is completely justified here, although I would like to see physical measures to prevent the speeding in the first place.

California has a law I believe in which the driver must be photographed as well, ensuring that the correct person is sent a ticket. This is a good idea. It ensures that the right tickets get sent to the right person. It can also be used to track vehicle thieves, who often break traffic regulations. It also ensures that more than just a fine can be sent, demerit points that deter future offenses and maybe even a bit of traffic school and for rather serious offenses, maybe even community service and for really bad, criminal offenses, arrest.

I would also be nervous if a private company was working with the tickets, aside from insurance companies worried about whether you might cause a crash. You do have a right to be suspicious, and to make it less dependent upon the flow of money, I wouldn't permit anyone but the police or other sworn law enforcement officers dealing with the tickets, and the camera company only gets paid for the cameras, sensors and the program to run it, not per ticket.

Bus lane tickets are common in the UK. And Leeuwarden has a fine and camera system so that those caught entering the city centre in an unauthorized car are fined. Those are good ideas too. The bus lane should be well marked, ideally with dyed asphalt or concrete, signed, ideally on overhead signage, and ideally with something like raised ridges to protect it, and to make it very clear when, how, and why you are allowed to cross them. Same idea in Leeuwarden. Assuming those requirements are met, and everything else I said in this post, then they are perfectly fine in my opinion. Bus lanes are for buses, motor vehicle lanes are for motor vehicles. You could even apply this to cycle lanes. That would be nice.

However, I want to stress that enforcement like this, while predictable, going to catch every offender or nearly all of them, giving you a very high chance (with obvious reasons for why this is) of being caught, a vital part of making a road regulation credible in the minds of it's users, should not be the go to option for dealing with traffic problems. Infrastructure design that makes it obvious what to do, who by, when, where and why and also how is the best way to get people to use the correct behavior. I mean, it's nice knowing that if a car crashes into me at a traffic light that they are going to be given a traffic ticket, but I don't want the crash from happening in the first place. More visible traffic signals with a large backplate, 30 cm diameter aspects and a good high contrast stripe around the edge of the signal, plus speed tables and other calming devices to assure the correct speed, is best to deal with red lights (assuming you need the lights, roundabouts are even better ideas). Brick paving, narrow lanes, curving roads, even if just going around parking that alternates sides of the roads every 80 metres works well to enforce a school zone limit. You also know what the speed limit will be just by looking at the road. This is the idea behind "self explaining roads", something that Sustainable Safety is often paraded around as being.

Photo enforcement is a useful tool, but make sure that they aren't tied to people who can make money off of it (maybe just send it off to a zebra crossing construction fund), make sure that the road itself and signal programming prevents offenses as much as possible, good amber light timings, speed limits equal to the design speed, and people will obey the law even more than they do now.


  1. Big Brother is watching, that should be the motto.

    1. I didn't say everywhere. I call for standard enforcements where the officers are in their cruisers and motorcycles to personally have a chat and to have a road that reinforces good behavior and with fewer ways that people can screw up on their own first. You don't expect that the police won't check your license plate, driving record and license when they stop you for speeding or red light jumping or whatever now would you?


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