Cameras are fallible and should not be trusted
Speed cameras can't be trusted, and neither can the people who operate them
With the move to ban speed cameras across Arizona gathering steam, opponents of automated speed traps should take a moment to nurse a few regrets. No, it's not because of second thoughts about the merits of camera-issued tickets.
Instead, we should mourn the receding opportunity to tape a copy of former Gov. Janet Napolitano's license plate over our own and whizz on down the highway for the benefit of the robotic revenue generators.
Just before Christmas, Maryland's Montgomery County Sentinel published a story about high school kids "speed camera pimping." They forge license plates on computers, using the actual plate numbers of students and teachers who've rubbed them the wrong way. The fake plates are printed on glossy photo paper, then pasted over real plates. The pranksters speed by roadside cameras, knowing a chosen victim will receive the citation in the mail.
It's mean, but clever. It also points out just how fallible the dumb robo-cameras really are.
Fallibility is a major concern when it comes to speed cameras. With no witness at the scene to vouch for the official version of events, the camera's accuracy has to be assumed - and that's a big assumption.
In 2005, Britain's BBC tested speed cameras of the sort used by mobile units. One test clocked a stationary wall going 58 mph.
In December 2007, a test in Lafayette, La. revealed an eight mph difference in speed readings taken by radar-based devices and by laser-based cameras. Nobody knew which - if either - was more accurate.
And just last month, a driver in Bristol, England, was vindicated after spending more than the cost of his ticket to prove that his ancient Honda had an absolute top speed of 85 mph - rather less than the 98 mph the speed camera claimed. The camera almost certainly tagged the wrong vehicle, if it even got the speed right.
Research over the years, including an often-cited study from the University of Virginia, indicates that speed cameras have trouble properly identifying drivers, plates and cars across multiple lanes of traffic. That's annoying when the snapshots they take are unusable; it's infuriating and unjust when they finger the wrong car at the wrong speed.
Proponents of speed cameras wave off wrong guy/ wrong speed arguments, claiming that it's enough that traffic cameras reduce accidents and save lives. Hey, if you gotta break a few eggs ...
Well, maybe cameras do save lives, but you can't necessarily tell from the advocates' data. While the Phoenix area enjoyed a significant drop in traffic accidents last year, so did Utah, where photo enforcement is limited to school zones. (High gas prices may be the cause in both states.)
The Arizona Capitol Times recently pointed out that the Department of Public Service cherry-picks from its pet study, skimming over an increase of as much as 55 percent in rear-end collisions that has occurred since cameras sprouted along Arizona roads. It seems that drivers tend to slam on the brakes when they come across the robo-enforcers. Who knew?
Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu cited just such an increase in collisions among his reasons for dumping speed cameras, saying, "If you are driving down the road and see a photo camera, people slam on their brakes and they get rear-ended. This is where we have seen an increase in traffic accidents in Pinal County."
And now we know that state officials and DPS have been using Arizona's speed cameras to produce continuous video records of cars passing by.
The records are supposedly destroyed after 90 days, but can we really trust officials who didn't bother telling us about the video to begin with to destroy data about our movements on the highways?
Dumb revenue machines that are easily fooled, often inaccurate, actually increase the frequency of some accidents, and that have been used to spy on us.
Why aren't all of us driving around with copies of Janet Napolitano's license plates?
This column was published February 27, 2009 by The Arizona Republic