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Breaking the law is not inevitable this holiday season

An article in the Washington Post last Wednesday should make everyone pause and ponder a strangely dismissive attitude toward theft we see from national advocacy groups and Post retail writers. It says:

Photo by cjelli on Flickr.
When cruising through the shelves of District stores after Thanksgiving, most shoppers give thanks for the plentiful holiday gift choices. They are less likely to be thankful later when they are arrested for shoplifting. ...

The American Mall-Goers Association cautions its members seeking information on shopping in Washington that the District is a "Strict Enforcement Area" for shoplifting. "That's a modern-day parlance for thief trap," said AMGA's Jane R. Citystart II. "By cruising the aisles this weekend, you're likely to shoplift and to get arrested."

This phrasing is very odd. It's as if the author of the article, and AMGA, assume that people can't help shoplifting, and that it's just not possible to find any gifts for the holidays without being a criminal. But it's entirely possible. Just don't break the law.

The above is not, you might guess, what the Post article said. But it said the exact same thing, substituting the act of speeding for shoplifting. Ashley Halsey III printed this article on Wednesday, writing:

When zipping through the near-vacant streets of the District on Thanksgiving, most drivers give thanks for the lack of traffic. They are less likely to be thankful later when they get a speeding ticket in the mail.

AAA cautions its members seeking information on traveling to Washington that the District is a "Strict Enforcement Area" for speeding. "That's a modern-day parlance for speed trap," said AAA's John B. Townsend II. "By zipping through town this weekend, you're likely to speed and to get a ticket."

Nowhere does the article note a simple, but extremely important fact: if you don't break the law, you won't get any tickets. MPD argues that they only place the cameras in areas where there's greater danger to drivers, pedestrians, or cyclists. AAA doesn't think that's true.

We need more traffic cameras, not fewer, and should place them in the real danger spots. DC is getting 9 new permanent cameras, but it's been over a year that MPD has been trying to bring in a more comprehensive system. There would be mobile cameras that they can deploy temporarily at high-danger spots, and cameras to catch box-blocking or failing to yield to pedestrians.

A year ago, MPD's Lisa Sutter told the Pedestrian Advisory Council the camera program was waiting to go through the procurement process. In February, she told John Hendel the same thing. What's the holdup?

Cameras meaningfully reduce fatal crashes, catch unsafe behavior, and even bring in less money than anticipated because people's behavior is changing.

I drove Connecticut Avenue to and from Montgomery County for Thanksgiving, and there's not much speeding, especially in Chevy Chase and Kensington where everyone knows there are cameras.

The only problem with Montgomery's cameras is that people know they only write tickets for driving more than 12 mph over the speed limit. Therefore, many people confidently set the cruise control for 40 in the 30 mph zone. What speed does Maryland want you to drive—30 or 40?

AAA's Lon Anderson told Halsey,

One would think that traffic safety in the city must be going south with this infusion of new camera sites or that the city's coffers desperately need replenishing. So if traffic safety isn't the issue, we must conclude that the city is more concerned that the $43 million netted last fiscal year in automated speeding enforcement was insufficient. If they are for safety, we applaud the city. But if, perchance, they are for revenue, then shame on them.
I can agree with AAA's Lon Anderson on one thing: cameras shouldn't be a revenue grab. In fact, criminal justice science suggests that cameras should carry much lower fines. When we increase the chance of catching lawbreakers, we don't need such high penalties. Just as a 5¢ fee for a plastic bag was enough to significantly change behavior, might a $20 or even $10 ticket stop speeding or red light running if drivers knew they're sure to get caught?

This would be especially fair for box blocking cameras. When we discuss them, many drivers worry that they'll inadvertently get caught blocking the box if they enter an intersection expecting room on the other side, but suddenly find traffic stopping. Many drivers abuse this by moving into intersections even when there's stopped traffic on the far side, but it's true that from time to time the unexpected happens and even a well-behaving driver can get stuck.

Instead of levying a high fine and expecting drivers to contest tickets they think are unfair, just set the fine low, like $10. If you get stuck blocking the box, you did screw up a bit, so pay the fee that's less than the cost of most parking garages anyway. It will only really start hitting people's pocketbooks when they drive in a way that frequently creates box-blocking. Those drivers need to reexamine their actions.

How about it, AAA? Would you join me in lobbying for a Council bill to speed up implementation of a number of box blocking cameras, provided that the fines are set low?

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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Are you familiar with the difference between a civil infraction and a criminal infraction? Speeding is a civil infraction. Shoplifting is a criminal infraction. They are not even close to the same thing.

by Alan on Nov 28, 2011 10:33 am • linkreport

You left out average speed cameras in residential areas: these would be much more effective in stopping speeding than this nonsense 15mph speed limit that has been proposed.

by Phil on Nov 28, 2011 10:38 am • linkreport

The Post has also run several letters lately from people who state that they are habitual law-breakersspeeders. I'm wondering whether there are any other laws, traffic or otherwise, that lots of people write to newspapers about themselves breaking habitually.

by Miriam on Nov 28, 2011 10:48 am • linkreport

I have no problem with the speed cameras, if, IF, the speed limits are reasonable, and in several places in DC they are not. I-295 between the Anacostia River and the Beltway should be 70 mph, not 55. It is an interstate (it even has a weigh station). I drove that stretch Sunday morning and there was exactly one other car on the road with me (well, on the shoulder), a DC camera car. I could have gone 100mph and not put anyone at danger at that time, yet go over 55 and get a ticket?

The I-395 tunnel should be 55mph. The reality is that during the day you won't be able to go that fast due to traffic, but again on nights and weekends, the limit of 40 or 45 (there aren't enough signs but that is another thing) is too low. Plus, because the camera is permanent, you get people driving over 55, then slamming on the brakes when they get to the camera, which is far more dangerous than just driving fast.

You can also add NY Ave in NE, 295 from RFK to the MD line, Suitland Parkway (the DC section) and a few others.

By the way, the latest camera car I have seen. On one of the RFK stadium access roads by the DC armory. When there are no events going on at either RFK or the Armory there is zero pedestrian traffic in that area yet for some reason we are all paying for an officer to sit in a car and make sure people drive below 25mph on what is an access road to an interstate highway.

by dcdriver on Nov 28, 2011 10:57 am • linkreport

Speed cameras "fire" at 12mph over the speed limit. I find them to be pretty reasonable and -- more to the point -- extremely effective in managing speeds. Stay at 10mph above the speed limit or less, and you'll be fine.

As much as I complain about the Rt.50/NY Ave NE 35 mph limit, the fact that where the speed camera is placed-- after the 9th Avenue Bridge -- is a perfectly reasonable place to put it, and it works. The same goes for Chevy Chase's speed camera on Connecticut Avenue.

by JustMe on Nov 28, 2011 11:10 am • linkreport

cameras shouldn't be a revenue grab

Why not? The government can get revenue by taxation, administrating fees, leases and fines.

It would seem to me that the leases and fines are the revenue streams that should be maximized, while taxation and fees should me minimized.

Dutch fines are going up massively, as the government is looking for more income during times of draconian budget cuts. They are specifically targeting asocial behavior.

2011 2012
180 340 Parking on handicapped spot without permit
180 220 Calling while driving
180 220 Passing a red light
180 340 Unnecessary noise (honking)
180 220 Using a closed highway lane (think I-66)
180 340 Not yielding to pedestrian in pedestrian crossing
100 120 No seat belt
180 220 Merging too late (/using the emergency lane)

Note that the fines are in euros, i.e. times 1.3.

by Jasper on Nov 28, 2011 11:18 am • linkreport

@dcdriver: Feel free to complain about speed limits being too low and do what you can to change it (vote, attend city council meetings, etc.), but enforcement is a separate issue entirely. At some point you have to decide on a speed limit. That limit won't be perfect for every single circumstance and no doubt you'll disagree with the set limit in some cases but that doesn't mean the limit is unenforceable or wrong. It's important to try to keep relative speed differences down and enforced speed limits seem to be the best/only way to do that. It's the law: it's everyone's responsibility to follow it even if they don't like it. And oftentimes there are good reasons for a low limit that aren't obvious to a casual observer (in the case of 295 N by RFK and the Maryland line I'll point out the really short merge zones).

The fact that people slam on their brakes near speed cameras to me proves that a) people's behavior is, in fact, altered by speed cameras and b) we need more of them, not fewer. If there were cameras every few hundred yards folks would never get a chance to speed.

I'm always pretty baffled by all the vitriol around the speed camera issue. My experience (especially in the Washington region) is that drivers have very little regard for each other or for safety in their driving. I drive 295 every day and a lot of people drive like real idiots out there. I hardly think traffic enforcement is overbearing around here (I've seen folks pulled over for traffic violations a scant few times in the 5 years I've lived here). The rampant speeding and swerving feels to me like a much bigger threat than the near-zero possibility of getting wrongly ticketed by a speed camera. I'd like to see a little more outrage against the irresponsible driving that typifies this region.

Also: I'm curious if anyone's done any studies to show a sort of "broken windows" effect around traffic enforcement. I feel like a strong police presence on the road with strict traffic enforcement might set a tone that would reduce crime overall. But that's just speculation.

by Aaron on Nov 28, 2011 11:20 am • linkreport

@ dcdriver:if, IF, the speed limits are reasonable

They are in most spots.

I could have gone 100mph and not put anyone at danger at that time

Sure you can. But do you trust everybody else to be as good a driver as you are?

by Jasper on Nov 28, 2011 11:20 am • linkreport

AAA's position on speed cameras is pretty unbelievable. They raised the argument that additional speed cameras were unnecessary because speeding rates have recently dropped--completely ignoring the likely causation for the drop, the perception that speeding and red-light running in DC are more likely to result in a fine.

by Crickey7 on Nov 28, 2011 11:20 am • linkreport

I basically agree with dcdriver on the point of reasonable speed limits, and would add North Capitol Street between Michigan Avenue and Irving Street to the list. That stretch of roadway was designed to be an eventual extension of the Center Leg Freeway. When the extension was scrapped, DC somehow thought it could magically make it a residential avenue, not by reshaping it, but simply by dropping a few 35 mph speed limit signs on it. Worse, this broke city recently spent scarce dollars (your tax dollars) to create paved parking spaces on both the north and south sides of North Cap (complete with parking space-marking yellow paint, no less!) to give mobile camera operators (DC police officers) a designated place to park and operate speed cameras.

Now, pedestrians can't walk on either side of North Cap in that stretch, and yes, I'm describing just a very short distance—I'd venture to say that you really can't get up too much speed in either direction. Nevertheless, 35 mph is too low and 45 would be much more reasonable.

Otherwise, you get the same behavior now on North Cap that you do on the north end of the Third Street Tunnel (I-395): people cruising along and then jamming on their brakes when they see a cop parked in the camera spots.

It's a foolish lie for DC to claim that speed enforcement on that part of North Cap is anything but a revenue grab.

by JC in DC on Nov 28, 2011 11:30 am • linkreport

AAA should just fully mimic the NRA. Speed doesn't kill people, people do.

by jeff on Nov 28, 2011 11:30 am • linkreport


Are you familiar with the difference between a civil infraction and a criminal infraction? Speeding is a civil infraction. Shoplifting is a criminal infraction. They are not even close to the same thing.

You say this as though the distinction is one based on some immutable natural law. Frankly, if someone is driving over 30mph on my residential street, they should be subject to criminal penalties.

So this whole BS about "Hey! Drivers have successfully lobbied for trivial fines in the one case, but shoplifters haven't managed to do so in the other!" doesn't hold much water.

by oboe on Nov 28, 2011 12:00 pm • linkreport

I'm all in favor of more cameras if the speed limits are posted and reasonable. In Montgomery County, the cameras all make sense -- they're on surface streets, usually as rural roads approach dense areas. Before each one, there's a sign saying "SPEED LIMIT 35 MPH PHOTO ENFORCED". It's a saftey system that trains people to drive the speed limit.

But in several places in DC, you get a $125 fine for going 52MPH on a four-lane limited access highway, where the 40MPH speed limit signs are nowhere to be found. That has nothing to do with safety -- it's an overpriced electronic toll collection system.

by Novanglus on Nov 28, 2011 12:05 pm • linkreport

Also regarding civil vs. criminal, many other things are civil violations which we could easily substitute here. For example, in NYC fare evasion is typically (though not always) charged as a civil violation. So it would look similarly strange if Halsey had written:
When zipping through the subways of New York while you are there for the Macy's parade, most riders give thanks for the frequent service and plentiful stations. They are less likely to be thankful later when they get a turnstile jumping ticket.

APTA cautions its members seeking information on traveling to New York that the city is a "Strict Enforcement Area" for turnstile jumping. "That's a modern-day parlance for fare trap," said APTA's Joe Q. Villagemiddle. "By zipping through the big city this weekend, you're likely to fare beat and to get a ticket."

by David Alpert on Nov 28, 2011 12:07 pm • linkreport

At least in the traditional model of economic behavior, two things determine the expected cost of breaking the law. The fine and the likelihood of getting caught. If the machines are very good at catching people then indeed, one would expect a lower fine to have an equivalent expected value.

At least as of my last reading a few years ago, I think the literature on crime also supports higher probabilities of being caught as having a bigger effect than more severe punishments.

An aspect of red-light cameras and other automated enforcement that I find attractive is that there is little to no racial, gender, age, whatever bias with the cameras. Few things irritate me more than police "courtesy" either for fellow off-duty officers or as a consequence of some sort of compensation.

by Geof Gee on Nov 28, 2011 12:52 pm • linkreport

Alpert has staked out a reasonable position: stricter enforcement but lower fines. I would add: the removal of cameras on roads used almost exclusively by vehicles like interstates and Rt. 50.

However, there's always a crowd that thinks that if a moderate amount of something is good, then a lot must be great. After all "they're breaking the friggin' law!". Well consider the following.

With advancements in facial recognition technology, we're not far from the day where we could have automated enforcement of jaywalking. A camera snaps your photo and matches it to a potential database of government pictures from driver's licenses and other sources. It wouldn't be too hard to imagine a world in which you could receive a $100 fine for jaywalking to the opposite side of your neighborhood street at 2am. How would you like that?

by Falls Church on Nov 28, 2011 12:59 pm • linkreport

Addendum to my post above ...

The more I think about it, I'm not entirely clear about the adjudication process of an automated ticket. Perhaps there are more people involved that could as a "courtesy" eliminate the ticket.

More generally, police labor is very expensive and it has proven to be quite difficult to make police more efficient with technology relative to a lot of other industries. (Sorry, I don't have a cite handy. Other than some exceptions with say matching finger prints, many tasks still need a person.) As a layperson, it seems to me that automated traffic enforcement could be a huge efficiency increase if it allowed expensive human labor to be used where needed.

With the appropriate data, we could calculate an efficient penalty. I have not gotten an automated ticket in years. So I am unfamiliar with the present penalties.

by Geof Gee on Nov 28, 2011 1:05 pm • linkreport

With advancements in facial recognition technology, we're not far from the day where we could have automated enforcement of jaywalking.

When the day comes that jaywalkers pose an equivalent threat to public safety as speeding drivers, we'll talk. A better comparison would be automated enforcement of cyclists who speed on sidewalks. I can't imagine anyone getting particularly exercised about that.

by oboe on Nov 28, 2011 1:28 pm • linkreport

It wouldn't be too hard to imagine a world in which you could receive a $100 fine for jaywalking to the opposite side of your neighborhood street at 2am. How would you like that?

I agree with oboe that obviously jaywalking is not the public safety issue that speeding is, but even accepting your comparison as an argument on principle, that's a policy problem, not an enforcement problem. In your example, if you think a law against jaywalking is a bad idea then the appropriate response would be to lobby to change the law so that jaywalking across your neighborhood streets at 2am is legal.

I would also argue that enforcing jaywalking in this way should probably be preceded by an information campaign to teach people the nuances of the law (though I expect folks would learn the law pretty quickly on their own accord if it were photo-enforced). Traffic laws rarely have this problem as usually (with only some exceptions) a driver's obligations are clearly communicated by both road signage and the licensing process itself.

In situations where a behavior has been deemed by society to be illegal, and your legal obligations have been made very clear I have no problem ticketing you for breaking the law.

Even if someone disagrees with a given speed limit he should be able to be an adult, show a little self-control, and slow down. If he has a pattern of being unable or unwilling to do that, then he probably doesn't deserve a driver's license. In the US at least, one doesn't have the right to drive a 2 ton vehicle on public roads at whatever speed he personally deems prudent. If folks want that right, then a law enabling that should be the discussion on the table.

by Aaron on Nov 28, 2011 1:59 pm • linkreport

So let's say you're in a grocery store, and there's a little table with cubes of cheese and toothpicks. You eat one, and months later you receive a photo of yourself eating cheese, with a $125 fine for shoplifting. When you complain, you're told "you should have known that in THIS store, those cubes of cheese are for sale. There's a sign at the cashier saying so."

That's the situation with a lot of DC cameras, where the speed limit is much lower than what drivers would expect for the road, and the signs are unreadable and/or haphazardly placed, if they exist at all.

AAA is right to warn non-DC drivers that driving through DC is likely to result in a speeding ticket. Because unless you've memorized the speed limit of every road you're going to drive on, it's true.

by Novanglus on Nov 28, 2011 3:20 pm • linkreport

@Novanglus: I completely agree that signage needs to be good. 100% agreed, there's no excuse for missing/lousy signage.

That said, while I've certainly seen cases of poor signage, I think you'd have a tough time making a serious case that a diligent/responsible driver is at any real risk of getting an unearned speeding ticket.

I'd like to suggest perhaps a more appropriate headline for AAA: "Caution, law-abiding drivers and pedestrians: You are in danger from aggressive speeders and red-light runners who regularly terrorize the roads with virtual impunity". The traffic cameras aren't the problem here.

by Aaron on Nov 28, 2011 3:30 pm • linkreport

Alpert has staked out a reasonable position: stricter enforcement but lower fines. I would add: the removal of cameras on roads used almost exclusively by vehicles like interstates and Rt. 50.

Except that there's a price point for everyone where the fine becomes a toll. The city could end up with a sort of luxury tax on speed, if the penalties are not commensurate with income or also carry a non-monentary penalty.

by Neil Flanagan on Nov 28, 2011 7:49 pm • linkreport

Once again, I am surprised by the hostility towards tourists.

by Jasper on Nov 29, 2011 7:10 am • linkreport

There's a false comparison here between shoplifting and driving infractions. It is very unlikely that you will accidently shoplift, but it is a near certainty that you will inadvertently break the law driving today.

Technically speaking, whenever your speedometer drifts above the speed limit, even for a second, you're breaking the law -- say coasting down a hill, decelerating after a speed limit change, passing a car, not stopping for exactly three seconds at a stop sign, poking the nose of your car into an intersection to see around a shrub, slightly overlapping a white line or a crosswalk because of an awkwardly timed red light, missreading a pedestrian's intent to cross the road, etc. I challenge anyone to tell me that their driving this week did not violate one of these rules at some point.

Normally, this is not a big problem because (1) law enforcement is not pervasive and (2) law enforcement is reasonable -- in the sense that officers properly doing their job apply reason to whether you intentionally broke the law in a manner that deserves punishment. Accordingly, those drivers who exhibit the riskiest behavior stand the greatest chance of getting punished, thereby incentivizing good behavior.

The problem with automated law enforcement is that it is on a trend line to being all pervasive / near pervasive and it cannot exhibit reason. Granted, individual officers are often unreasonable, but they at least are able to / expected to / trained to apply reason. When they don't, a judge can arbitrate. A camera cannot apply reason and judgement. Moreover, given that all drivers inadvertently and technically break the law all the time, pervasive monitoring and enforcement does not incentivize good behavior -- it terrorizes all drivers, good and bad alike. The fact that good drivers will be terrorized slightly less is little salve.

Automated enforcement is all knowing but it's divorced from reason. That alone should send a chill down peoples' spines.

by Greg on Nov 29, 2011 8:19 am • linkreport

@ Greg:Accordingly, those drivers who exhibit the riskiest behavior stand the greatest chance of getting punished, thereby incentivizing good behavior.

This is where you go wrong. The chance of being caught is near zero, voiding the incentive for good behavior.

A camera cannot apply reason and judgement.

Camera tickets do not bypass the judicial system. You can still go to court. The only difference is that a camera can ticket thousands of people a day, while an officer is limited in his ability.

Moreover, given that all drivers inadvertently and technically break the law all the time, pervasive monitoring and enforcement does not incentivize good behavior -- it terrorizes all drivers, good and bad alike.

Seriously, terror by a piece of electronic equipment?

Fact is, traffic cameras work, despite all the objections.

Speeding cameras are vilified, hated, and blown up back home in the Netherlands. But, coming back once a year, I can simply see myself that people are sticking to the speed limit better. Where it used to be normal to go 20 km/h over the speed limit, most people now hang just a bit below the speed limit. This has a massive calming effect on traffic.

Also, the number of traffic deaths is spectacularly down.
Check figures 1, 2 & 7 of this sheet by the Foundation for Scientific Research of Traffic Safety (in Dutch)

Not saying that traffic enforcement is the only factor, but it is a significant factor.

Automated enforcement is all knowing but it's divorced from reason.

How much reason can police officers apply when they have to go tell a family that a family member has been injured or killed by a speeding driver?

by Jasper on Nov 29, 2011 8:56 am • linkreport

It wouldn't be too hard to imagine a world in which you could receive a $100 fine for jaywalking to the opposite side of your neighborhood street at 2am. How would you like that?

Except that what most people (I suspect) are imagining is not illegal at all. Crossing a quiet residential street in the middle of the block, one that does not have traffic lights at its intersections, is not "jaywalking" and is not illegal - not at 2am and not in the middle of the day either. On blocks not controlled by traffic lights, pedestrians are allowed to cross anywhere outside of a crosswalk - but they don't have right of way over cars the way they do in crosswalks. But that shouldn't be a problem at 2am.

by J. Walker on Nov 29, 2011 9:35 am • linkreport


What melodrama!

Pretty much everything you've listed can be solved by a single strategy: slow down.

We've spent the last 30 or 40 years essentially letting drivers do whatever the Hell they want. So of course the process of actually enforcing the rules of the road will involve a bit of pain.

But DC is a pedestrian-oriented city, and growing more so every day. So get ready for massive enforcement. And either drive slowly and deliberately, or take Metro.

by oboe on Nov 29, 2011 10:24 am • linkreport

Point number one: I love the six-lane, divided roads that just so happen to have a 30 mph speed limit and a camera. No way would an out of town driver realize they should be driving on these road at the same speed they drive on their two-lane neighborhood streets back home.

Point number two: since we're such a law-and-order city when it comes to transportation, when is GGW going to make the big push to ticket bikers who run red lights?

Point number three: why shouldn't be just put surveillance cameras all over the city to watch out for crimes, since the only people who have to worry are those who are breaking laws?

Disappointed to see GGW get all W on us.

by Ryan on Nov 29, 2011 5:03 pm • linkreport


Simple. Your right to swing your fist stops where my nose begins. A civilized society has an obligation to curtail behavior that presents a danger to others. Speeding in a car does this. Aside from certain strained scenarios, bikers who run red lights (or pedestrians who jaywalk) do not.

Since this is obvious to most people--and the car dependency is much less than in the 'burbs--there's considerable political support in DC for automated enforcement. To erode that support will take a serious "education" campaign.

by oboe on Nov 30, 2011 9:28 am • linkreport

boo! we need NO cameras owned by the government, intruding on the privacy and liberty of citizens. using increased safety as the argument for them inevitably leads to a slippery slope.

David, how is your argument here not hypocritical in light of your argument against bag searches at Metro stations - the government using security fears to invade our privacy?

by Arnold on Nov 30, 2011 12:01 pm • linkreport

Actually, I'm the one who argued against Metro's bag searches.

And I didn't argue against them because they violate our civil liberties. I argued against them because they'll be ineffective.

Imagine if speed cameras only checked every 17th car to see if it was speeding. Or it only checked every 17th car that had something in the trunk for speeding.

Also, no more than two cameras in any jurisdiction would operate at any time. And imagine that they would only operate during rush hours.

And if you were selected for being checked for speeding you would be notified in advance and allowed to take a street without a speed camera if you wanted to speed.

Would that be an effective way to reduce speeding? Probably not. Same case for bag searches.

by Matt Johnson on Nov 30, 2011 12:37 pm • linkreport

@Matt: Actually, David has also posted articles about Metro's bag searches. Here are three quotes from two articles:

"Perhaps any security program, no matter what its value, is a good idea to Taborn, but someone higher up in the chain needs to intervene and say that such a controversial and intrusive program isn't worth the huge range of costs."

"It's always politically tough for elected or appointed officials to stand up in the face of comments like, "If only one person's life is saved, then this program is worth it."

"...Metro transit police are already pondering instituting useless "security theater" methods like random bag searches."

These are the sentiments to which I was responding - not your effectiveness argument.

by Arnold on Nov 30, 2011 3:44 pm • linkreport

@Arnold: We all live interwoven lives. With things like this we must evaluate the relative costs against the benefits and from where I'm sitting traffic cameras are a no-brainer. While I can agree that speed cameras and bag searches might be evaluated with the same rubrik, they're at far, far different ends of the cost/benefit scale. The use of speed cameras does not inevitably lead to a police state: there's a reason it's called the slippery-slope *fallacy*.

Traffic cameras represent a negligible inconvenience to law-abiding citizens (with false-positives being the only real issue) and are non-intrusive in terms of privacy invasion. They're cheap, they work, and they actually go a long way to solve an existing, real-world problem that most of us face every day.

Compare that to bag searches which are very invasive, present a significant inconvenience to law-abiding citizens, and are so poorly designed as to be completely ineffective at solving a problem which is, at best, at least much more hypothetical and abstract than the very concrete public danger of speeding.

I don't think it's inconsistent or unreasonable for Mr. Alpert to support speed cameras while criticizing the metro bag searches as implemented.

by Aaron on Nov 30, 2011 4:11 pm • linkreport

@Aaron said "I think you'd have a tough time making a serious case that a diligent/responsible driver is at any real risk of getting an unearned speeding ticket."

It would be very easy for a "diligent/responsible driver" to get a ticket going 55 MPH on I-295 or the Southeast Freeway if they didn't know the real speed limit (On I-295 north leaving the beltway, the first speed limit sign is after the new camera!). Same for someone going 35 in the undeveloped sections of Foxhall Rd, or 45 on the limited access section of Canal Rd.

And even if the limit is known, is it more responsible to drive with your eyes on the road or on the speedometer? The latter isn't diligent or responsible, but that's exactly where a ticket-fearing driver's eyes will be if the limit isn't natural for the road.

@oboe said "Your right to swing your fist stops where my nose begins": DC's cameras penalize swinging a fist even if there isn't a nose in sight, even if you're swinging it at a speed that's legal everywhere else. In other jurisdictions, the cameras are limited to places where there's a lot of noses that are likely to be hit, and the message "don't swing your fist here, someone could get hit" is ubiquitous. If DC really cared about safety, they'd make a much bigger effort to design safe, complete streets with safe speed limits, instead of building an unsafe culture of paranoid spedometer-gazing.

by Novanglus on Nov 30, 2011 5:22 pm • linkreport

I don't suppose Alpert considered that AAA's warning was meant to remind drivers of DC's strict enforcement and thereby discourage speeding?

If you are a traveler driving in an unfamiliar area ACCIDENTALLY breaking traffic violations is not unlikely even for a well intentioned driver. DC places cameras on roads where speed limits are lower than most vistiors would expect if they do not see the sign, and DC uses types of photo enforcement which do not exist in other parts of the country and in some cases enforcing technical violations which either don't exist in some places or is largely unheard of. Warning visitors to DC how much the district loves to take money from unwitting out of town "violators" commiting offenses they were unaware of seems to be within AAA's charter.

But I don't expect certain anti-car activists to see it that way, since to them driving is in and of itself a crime to be punished.

by Jay on Nov 30, 2011 7:35 pm • linkreport

Aaron: You're free to disagree with me, as is anyone else - I'm not suggesting that this is an objective issue, it's a matter of personal values. I don't like the government watching or searching innocent citizens, for any reason. I find it quite scary and un-American. You disagree, that's fine. I still FEEL that David's positions are inconsistent.

by Arnold on Dec 1, 2011 11:01 am • linkreport

@Arnold: I'm not sure it's possible for the government to enforce the law while not watching law abiding citizens. Law enforcement is a process of sifting the law breakers from the law abiders. Unfortunately we don't all come stamped with a label on our foreheads so law enforcement has to give everyone at least a passing glance (be that by way of police patrols, traffic cops, traffic cameras, or other means) to try to determine if we're obeying the law. We benefit as a society if we can allow the government to pursue techniques that are effective and minimally invasive.

I understand that you're uncomfortable with speed cameras and that they represent the loss of too much liberty, and that's your prerogative. But I don't think it's possible to hold to an ideologically pure position of "the government's not allowed to watch me in any way" while still desiring some degree of law enforcement.

by Aaron on Dec 1, 2011 11:17 am • linkreport

@Arnold: Like you, "I don't like the government watching or searching innocent citizens, for any reason." But if a human official can observe your car on a public street, then I don't see how a camera is any more of an infringement. In fact, it produces evidence (whether incriminating or exculpatory) that is less fallible than human judgement. I have major concerns with DC's speed cameras, but privacy isn't one of them.

But searching _inside_ our cars, pockets, baggage, etc (whether by a human, x-ray, nanotechnology, or whatever) is a completely different matter that needs to be balanced with a compelling government interest. I'm wary of whether that interest exists for metro. Someone could cause just as much terror by loading their car trunk with explosives and detonating it on a bridge at rush hour. But imagine the blowback if police started randomly stopping cars and inspecting them. Random inspections on metro don't make us any more secure, but it's yet another reason for people to choose cars over transit.

by Novanglus on Dec 1, 2011 11:49 am • linkreport

Aaron: No need for sarcasm. So I assume you'd be ok with the government putting cameras on every street corner. I disagree with your position that innocent people have to be watched in order to have any degree of law enforcement: most law enforcement involves officers (human beings) responding to situations.

Novangelus: There is a fundamental difference between humans and machines watching us, and part of it is the slippery slope point - it's not feasible to have humans watch every public move we make, but it is to use machines. I also disagree that cameras are less fallible, at least in the sense that they can't use judgment (eg, I see that the car behind me is going to run the light so I have to as well).

To reiterate, this is a difference in values. No need to keep trying to argue your point, as we're going to continue to disagree.

by Arnold on Dec 1, 2011 1:48 pm • linkreport

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