Thursday, January 27, 2005

Red light cameras

Big rant at Classical Values about red light cameras (hat tip: Instapundit).

Unlike speed limits which are arbitrarily set too low (and you know they are too low when nearly every single driver is disobeying the posted limit), traffic lights are necessary to regulate traffic flow when there is actually traffic at an intersection.

On the other hand, enforcement of laws via camera is a whole new world of big brother watching you. But in theory, the camera doesn't see anything that a cop hiding near the intersection wouldn't have been able to see. I'm sure thats what the courts have held.

This issue has brought up a lot of libertarian debates and is similar to the drug sniffing dog and national ID card issues I recently posted about.

Technology allows better enforcement of existing laws. Enforcement of just laws is good (like red light running or murder) but enforcement of unjust laws (like speed limits or drug possession) is bad.

But the thing to fear is that the government could uses its new powerful information gathering ability for bad purposes such as rooting out and arresting people for speaking out against the government. The reason why the Second Amendment was placed into the Constitution was to give ultimate power to the people in case they needed to rebel against the government. Technological law enforcement, like removing people's weapons, makes a future revolution that much more difficult if not impossible.

Unfortunately, the technological genie is out of the bag and can't exactly be put back in. I predict an ever increasing use of cameras and other technology with only a tiny percentage of people complaining about it.


TWM said...

And how are speed limit laws unjust? This I gotta hear. I just gotta. Please tell me. Please, please, please.

Charles said...

Wow, LG, you amaze me, a 2A supporter! You are perfect!

I suppose I could be persuaded that red light runner cameras have a use, and using the pictures as evidence to convict one that kills innocent people or causes an accident has some merit. Using them to track citizens, which the average cop would never notice, and build patterns of activity that are later used in court for support, when that activity was legal and unrelated to a crime... no that is not a correct use. Technology is neutral, the use it is put to makes it evil or good.

Mexigogue said...

They shouldn't be speed limits, they should be recommendations, and there should be no fines. And then if you cause an accident because you exceeded the recommendations, that should factor in for liability purposes.

Hey Librarian Girl, I put a link to your page on my page!

TWM said...

Once again, LG's strange logic has spurred me to write a post on a subject. Please check it out at:

Oh, speed limit suggestions? What a concept.

Mexigogue said...

Yes, recommendations. The problem with enforcing speed limits is that now you have some people following an arbitrary law (where the speed is set too low) and others driving the way the highway is built to be driven. The relative speed difference causes the danger.

That plus if you take away the fines you will eliminate the danger inherent when everybody hits their brakes at the same time upon seeing a cop on the highway.

Ron Chusid said...

There is something more Orwellian about hidden cameras which might result in more people complaining about this. One fear is that by using it for something relatively benign such as enforcing traffic laws, people will become more accustomed to electronic surveilance and be less likley to protest if expanded to other areas.

This reminded me of a science fiction story I once read where there were devices which supposedly read people's minds and exploded it anyone had subversive thoughts. Actually (in the story) they were set to explode randomly to give the impression they could prevent subvesive thought.

There is a curious inconsistency here in arguing that laws regarding driving through red lights are acceptable while speed limits are not. While many would disagree, it would be consistent to argue that the government does not have the right to set any traffic laws, but why one and not the other? Is it that driving through a red light is more likely to result in an accident? What if it is an area with minimal traffic and someone could be certain that they would not hit anyone by going through the red light? In this case, there is less risk from prohibiting driving through a red light than there is in regulating speed limits in more heavily populated areas.

Speed limits are not necessarily a clear cut case of the government imposing rules unjustly. Here's an example where perhaps the local government could be faulted for not making the speed limit lower. The major street in my subdivision is residential, but over time was extended to have an outlet on a second main street. When this was done, the street was reclassified as a different type of street joining two main streets, and the speed limit was raised. The residents of the subdivision wanted a lower speed limit out of concern for the safety of their children. Is the government wrong in this case for imposing a speed limit higher than those living on the street desire? As an example of strange government thinking, the response of the local government was to place devices to monitor the speed which people were driving through the street, to set the limit based upon how most people were driving. Therefore if the majority were driving too fast, they would keep the speed limit higher, without consideration of the safety issues.

TWM said...

Arbitrary? How so? I believe traffic managers do a lot of research on what limits are safe for certain roads. While you might argue that putting a limit of 70s MPH is arbitrary on a lonely stretch of highway in Montana, certainly that does not apply to other more traveled, busier, winding or otherwise special roads that are ONLY safe at a certain limit.

Mexigogue said...

What about my right to take exits at consciousness losing speeds????

Libertarian Girl said...

The residents of the subdivision wanted a lower speed limit out of concern for the safety of their children.

People need to teach their children not to walk in the street. I'm sick and tired of zillions of unnecessary laws multiplying for the "sake of the children."

We live in a democracy and the laws should therefore reflect the will of the people. Speed limits should reflect how people actually prefer to drive instead of what some nanny-state bureaucrat thinks.

On the highways around DC, the posted speed limits are 55 but every single driver is going faster than that. The speed limits are set too low.

Traffic lights, on the other hand, are necessary to get efficient use out of the roads. Imagine if all the traffic lights were replaced by four way stop signs. No one would be able to get anywhere.

Ron Chusid said...

Which is fairer--speed limits which reflect what the people living in the area want (the lower speed limits) or the way that others drive who do not live in the area but pass through the subdivision? We get a fair amount of traffic from people who do not live in the subdivision to either look at the houses or to use the street as a short cut between the streets on each side of the subdivision.

Teaching kids not to go in the street is not always successful.

Chad said...

I am intrigued by the speed limit recommendation idea. If I understand it correctly there would be a recommended speed limit for a road which you could or could not chose to obey, if however you are involved in an accident then your percentage of liability goes up. So theorhetically driving my new corvette on a residential street (normally zoned at 25 or 35 mph here) I could be going 225 mph hit a school bus full of nuns kill them all and face no criminal penalty. So as soon as I pay off my court judgement, probably pretty minimal because we all now that religous people are losers so they aren't any great loss to society, i can jump into my new corvette and go do it again. cool i like this idea. While we are at it why don't we make traffic lanes and one way streets recommendations too. sometimes it is just too big a hassle to go around the block and you know that those one way street signs were put there arbitrarliy. Man this is such a cool idea, lets roll it out to other areas. Electrical codes, just a recommendation, if you don't follow em and that apartment building burns down killing 400 people, well we will just handle it through liability. Think how much less it will cost to build a house. Not letting pilots drink before they fly, just a recommendation, if they slam their palne into the middle of the pacific on the way to hawaii well no problem we will just sue. This is gonna be a cool new world. Woo Hoo

Publicola said...

We do not live in a democracy. & if I have any say about it we never will. We're in a constitutional republic with democratically elected representation. to paraphrase churchill a democracy is two wolves & a sheep voting on what's for lunch; a republic is a heavily armed sheep contesting the vote. :)

But addressing some other comments...

It's easier to explain the unjustness of speeding laws if we go back in time ten years. The interstates were designed in the 1950's to be used by 1950 era cars. They were constructed with about 70 mph in mind as the normal speed. Now ten years back we had the federally imposed 55 mph speed limit. That was in place since the 70's - not for driver safety but to give the appearance of doing something about the gas shortages. 15 mph slower in cars with a few generations improved technology was unjust - especially since the feds had no buisiness setting the limits in the first place. (& please, don't try to justify it with the ICC - it won't work).

Now there are a few places I know of where the limit should reasonably be 5 to 10 mph higher than it is. I obey the limits as they are but I wouldn't try to defend them across the board.

The government doing studies & consulting experts is no justification for what they do as a matter of policy (or law for that matter). Think about it - you're saying you trust the same folks who gave you the uber-effecient DMV to do other things like figure out what a safe speed is? That's kind alike hiring Abbot & Costello to do neurosurgery on your wife's cerebral cortex.

The camera thing - busting someone going through a red light is not the big deal. What is the big deal is the lack of appeal that the accused seem to have in those cases. & that's a big deal not because everyone who runs a red light & gets their pic taken is really innocent, but because it has broader implications. namely a weakening of the effectiveness of defense against state charges across the board & an informal shift in the burden of proof. It's not anything noticable yet, but an overly broad precedent or two & the camera thing could mean trouble for people accused of other things - some justifiably prohibited & some not.

One last nitpick for LG - the 2A wasn't placed in the constitution to give the people power. It was placed in there to acknowledge a power people possessed inherently long before government existed. It seems trivial but it's a very important distinction.

TWM said...

"People need to teach their children not to walk in the street. I'm sick and tired of zillions of unnecessary laws multiplying for the "sake of the children." - LG

The ignorance in this statement is overwhelming. Try to teach a 3 or 4 or 5 year old to not run towards a street. Just try.

Publicola said...

before you get too happy I have tow words for you: criminal negligence.

No libertarian I know of wants to rely solely on the civil process. But prior restraint based laws aren't generally seen as desriable. Punishing someone for their potential to cause harm is not a good idea. Punishing people when they actually cause harm on the other hand is necessary & proper.

So how about this - you do 225 in a suggested 25 zone & hit someone you face the death penalty whereas if you'd have been doing 55 you'd face 20 years as opposed to doing 23 & either have charges dropped or face 3 weeks of cu=ommunity service 9the theory being that at 23 mph odds are good that the victim was just as negligent if not moreso than you were).

Persoanlly I can think fo a lot more pressing matters to tend to than revamping the speed limit system. But in principle it'd be necessary to tackle it at some point to get rid of any & all prior restraint based laws there are.

Does the "suggested speed limit" idea seem more reaosnable to you now?

TWM said...

Oh, and since we are talking arbitrary laws here. When you drive down my residential street doing 75mph, can I shoot at you? I mean, gun laws are the most arbitrary of all laws. And frankly, if I want to shoot your sorry ass for endangering my "really stupid children" who can't be taught not to run in the street, why is that wrong?

Publicola said...

It sounds like it's harder to teach the parents that they are responsible for their kids' actions than to teach the kids how to behave. Any reason why a parent shouldn't be in a position to stop their 3 year old from running towards a busy street?

Mexigogue said...

Chad, in such a case as you described you would still be charged with manslaughter. And what makes you think you would survive an accident in which you were driving 225 mph?

Ron Chusid said...

Generally we would try to keep the kids from going in the street, but as in this case we are talking about the street the kids live on, there will be cases where a kid winds up in the street.

To avoid having a kid killed or injured by a car is a very desirable goal, and it is safer to use more than one means of accomplishing this. This includes both parents attempting to keep the kids out of the street and lower speed limits in case this fails.

Chad said...

Actually I don't believe I would since vehicular manslaughter requires a contributing element such as speeding (no longer a factor), or drinking. As for surviving, well I am an optimist.

Chad said...

Drawing upon my vast knowledge of the law, gleaned from years of watching law and order, I believe that in order for a criminal negligence charge to be filed, you have to do something tht you have reasonable knowledge that it will result in death or injury. Is it really reasonable for me to have expected that bus full of nuns to be there. Don't they share a large percentage of the responsibility after all they could have been safely back in their convent and its not my responsibility that they weren't. And since the speed limit was just a suggestion and I am driving a car designed to be capable of doing 225 mph and I know what a good driver I am is it really that unreasonable that I was driving that fast. After all like Scott from yesterdays discussion I routinely exceed the speed limit and have never had a problem before.

Charles said...

Any parent letting a 3 or 4 year old outside unsupervised in an unfenced yard needs some serious liberal-style feeling of the pain about parenting - but I see why some people don't. I mean it takes up a lot of the adult's free time to be responsible for supervising their unlicensed offspring. Can't have anyone feeling bad that they have to actually perform some responsibilities of their actions, can we?

Speed limits as recommendations... well, the autobahns and other high speed roads in Europe have minimum required speeds. You get a ticket as a traffic hazard if you don't at least maintain that (usually 100km per hour). Upper limits vary. Some places the speed is regulated due to construction, heavy traffic, very bad weather, other factors. Germany has large stretches where there is no limit, except how fast your car will go. However, if you are zooming along at 300km per hour and have or cause an accident, prepare to go to court, get fined and spend time in jail. A few years ago there was a court that placed an upper practical limit of about 130 km per hour for unregulated stretches of road - because accident data showed too many people could not handle their cars faster than that.

Oh, 60mph is about 100km per hour for quick conversions.

Mexigogue said...

A reasonable person would know that there are often pedestrians in the street and other vehicles to look out for. I read a case about a person who was driving 80 on Woodward Avenue in Detroit (the police were chasing him) and he hit a motorcyclist and was charged with and convicted of manslaughter. The jury found that a reasonable person would have foreseen that he was putting other lives at risk at 80 mph. Your argument that it is the nuns fault would not fly.

heheh! flying nuns!

Chad said...

We are slowly getting around to my actual point, which is that speed limits are not set arbitrarily, but are reasonable assumptions made by traffic engineers on what conditions will prevail on a given roadway. That is why you have a blanket residentail speed limit unless otherwise posted. Residential streets are built to a certain standard, highways to another one. It also has to take into account all the different types of vehicles on the road, varying road conditions, condition of vehicles (believe it or not everyones car isnt in as good as shape as my corvette) and the experience level of the drivers. Thats why you have speed limits, to enhance public safety, not to inconvience people or generate revenue. As a former Ambulance attendant I have seen many accidents where the driver thought they knew better than the posted speed limit, almost every one had at least one fatality, so I tend to support them even if they are inconvienent at times.

Scott said...

Your sample is obviously not representative of the majority of people who drive over the speed limit, by definition.

Whatever reason speed limits are established, that does not change the fact that they do inconvenience people, and they do result in money being paid to the state.

Charles said...

Blanket speed limits are set through:
1) It is easier to enforce and everyone can learn it. Most of Europe does this and it is changed only if there is a sign changing it.
2) What seems reasonable or somehow safe to the local guy making the rules (may or may not be elected or have any idea why that number is on the sign). And that guy may or may not be expressing the will of the people.
3) "We have always had it that way." Meaning the real reason was lost years ago.
4) And then there are some places where the civil engineers who spent a lot of time laying this stuff out with their calculations of expected speed norms for an area of type (residential, shopping, interstate, secondary road) given in their books, banked or straightened or even curved the road surface of a particular type for the traffic. Sheesh. Publicola wrote pretty well on this earlier, the highway system was designed around cars where 45-50mph was pretty speedy. So they designed to that, then like most engineering years ago, they doubled the strengths or curves or whatever as a safety margin to make sure the bridge would stand. As we got better at calculating, gathered data, designed new ways, made better materials, the margin for safety got smaller. So now your 65mph new highway is built for maybe 75 or 80, but not 130mph!

Brian_B said...

This is just wrong on so many levels.

First and most simple...
Even supervised children sometimes make it to the street(usually with a parent running to catch them). To make an "ass"umption that because children should be supervised and thus are never going to make it to the street is foolish.

If traffic laws/speed limits were changed to just suggestions...well... as someone that lives in the western US...I shutter to think.
Maybe back east it is different...and all the people there are mellow and are driving like Miss Daisy. Out in the west...where there is often over 50 miles to the next town, I will guarentee that some dumbass redneck/cowboy will be driving his [insert truck here] 120mph and run into a [insert animal here]. I have seen when a vehicle hits a cow at 75ish aint pretty. Now while there is still a good chance that if the driver had been going 60ish mph he might have been able to miss said 120mph there is no way in hell. 120mph the driver is as good as dead...or at the very least a vegi/cripple. That is just what we need...more people on the welfare system sucking at the collective "teet".

Studies have proven that driving at excessive speeds causes more wear and tear on roads(think semi trucks). Great more money down the drain for repairs to the already crappy roads.

I personally think they should have idiot cameras in addition to the redlight cameras that shoot frickin' lasers at people that drive stupidly...that would solve 2 issues...crowded roadways and stupid drivers.

Ron Chusid said...

"Even supervised children sometimes make it to the street(usually with a parent running to catch them). To make an "ass"umption that because children should be supervised and thus are never going to make it to the street is foolish"

Agreed. Plus, even kids who are old enough to be outside on their own might not be as careful as they should be 100% of the time. Kids in a residential neighborhood often walk and play in or near the street. Even if I disagree with this (and wouldn't want my child doing this), I still do not want to see the neighbor's kids get hit by cars.

Again, the main point of my comment is that speed limits are not necessarily a case of government setting a speed limit which is too low. While I believe there are cases where it is too low, and even that there are areas where this is done to raise money through tickets, there are also cases where the people living in an area are the ones requesting the lower speed limit. In this case most of the neighborhood even wanted a lower speed limit than was set by the local government.

Chad said...


You're right my sample doesn't apply to most people. Actually its not a sample since many and most aren't good data groups :-) It was an anecdotal observation. My highly subjective opinion is that most people who speed do so by 5 to 10 mph, which is within the safety range of road design. I don't really have a problem with that. The other type of speeder is the one who is just in a huge hurry and is in and out of traffic, tailgating, cutting people off. That I have a real problem with because it makes the road unsafe for me. That is where the idiot cam would be handy. Unfortunately they would probably crash after being hit by the laser. Maybe we could hit them with a burst of highly concentrated radiation so they can't reproduce or send a squad of paid thugs. to their house to beat the with a sock full of oranges

TWM said...


I assume you don't have any children and that is why you ask, so I am glad to explain. Even the most responsible parent cannot watch their children 100% of the time. I have raised three boys, and believe me, my wife and I have always had an almost paranoid obsession with insuring they did not "wander" off into danger.

But even so, I can say that on two different occasions my two oldest boys (both who were at about five years of age) managed to "almost" run into a busy street when we were within five feet of them, and our youngest managed to escape our house despite the locked doors with security chain. He was a toddler and simply squeezed through the door. We have nicknamed him Houdini.

And even when they are older you can't keep them locked up. They run, they play, they get distracted - because they are CHILDREN - and that is what children do.

So, while I am the first to agree that "protecting the children" should not be used as the reason to pass every law or rule, it is simply nonsense to think, and to certainly say, that speed limits are not needed in residential areas or near schools because parents should pay closer attention to their kids or teach them not to run in the street.

Scott said...

Skimming through some of the comments, I only wish to point out something that many commentators seem to be missing.

There are costs and benefits to every policy. There are benefits to setting speed limits; saving lives, preventing wear on the roads. And there are costs: longer time spent on the roads, time taken for people to get places, cost for administration to enforce those limits.

When one argues against the speed limit, he simply believes the costs exceed the benefits. The same applies to the contrary. There is nothing, so far as I can see, prima facie wrong with arguing either way, but simply pointing out a benefit on one side of the debate but failing to consider the corresponding costs is unpersuasive.

Notice nobody is willing to take extreme positions of either polarity. Nobody is arguing that we should abolish driving altogether, nor is anyone arguing that drivers should be immune from liability. This suggests that both think the proper tradeoff between costs and benefits lies somewhere in the middle of the extremes.

What is missing from all the comments I have read is some proposal for measuring the benefits and costs, a way to find the point where they equal each other, an equilibrium. Libertarians who want to privatize roads believe a market mechanism is the proper way of finding this point--they do not trust the government to do it, as the government is not a market.

Others may feel differently, but I am curious as to what mechanism they propose in its stead. If they propose that the government is accurate in its measurement of costs and benefits, I am skeptical, and don't know how one would construct a proof showing this to be so.

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