Sunday, April 11, 2004

Someone To Watch Over Me

The City Council is considering traffic cameras as a way to slow down or stop folks who run red lights in Memphis. The article looks at how an experiment in Germantown is working out.

I'm not so sure about traffic cameras, but I am conflicted here. If the City could afford to place an officer at every dangerous intersection all day, to hand-write every ticket, no one would object and many would hail the move. But make that officer a machine and suddenly it's Big Brother. Flood Beale Street with officers and while some might call them party poopers, few would ultimately mind. But put a handful of officers in an office watching a bank of monitors hooked to cameras all over Beale Street, and suddenly it's a police state. It's only a tool, like handcuffs, tasers, clubs and guns. So, it's not the tool so much as it is the usage of it, I think. More properly, the potential for abuse and the likelihood of over-reliance to the point of laxity.

Still, the article makes some points worth taking a deeper look into:
In Germantown, the first city in Tennessee to experiment with the technology, red-light cameras have been used to ticket violators since September2002.

Andy Pouncey, an assistant city administrator in Germantown, said crashes at one intersection - Germantown Road and Wolf River Parkway - have decreased 26 percent since 2002.

At the other intersection - Poplar Avenue and West Street - the number of accidents has remained about the same, although traffic counts have increased.

Pouncey said the number of accidents also has declined at some of the town's other major intersections, which he considers a "residual" benefit of posting signs warning of video enforcement without telling drivers which intersections have the cameras.
Hmmm. Andy, maybe you should consider other things before you leap to conclusions here.

If you saw a drop in violations at every intersection, maybe you're seeing an overall reduction, a change in behavior, not associated with the cameras. Not terribly likely, true, but it must be considered and looked into. Alternatively, if putting up signs gets the same net result as putting up cameras, then logically it would be as effective and much less expensive for Germantown to use signs only. Or to rotate just a few cameras through different intersections anonymously and rely on signs elsewhere. Or put up fake cameras all over? Or some combination of these ideas?

Just a thought.
From October 2002 through September 2003 the cameras recorded 8,919 violations at those two intersections.

That total excludes emergency vehicles with lights flashing, cars in funeral processions and cars that legally entered the intersections before the lights changed red.

Germantown police wrote only 5,525 tickets based on evidence recorded on the cameras.
The error rate, or exclusion rate depending on how you want to look at it, is 38%? That's not good.
Germantown Police Officer David Bennett, who reviews the cameras and decides when to mail out citations, cited various reasons a violator might not be ticketed. For example, a driver's license plate might not be legible because of sunlight glare, a license plate frame or a trailer obstructing the camera's image.
Obviously, I would put a sheet of something glare-inducing over my license plate then. Saran wrap, thin plastic, clear spray paint. Saves me a ticket from the machine.
The car in the photo might not be the same type of vehicle shown on the license plate registration information.
Wouldn't that be a legal violation anyway? Wouldn't they investigate?
Germantown pays Nestor $15,946 monthly to maintain the cameras, which record only violations moving east and west on Poplar and north and south on Germantown Road.

Ticket revenue generated at the two intersections isn't enough to cover the monthly fees. Pouncey said the city's total deficit is $23,645 for the first 15 months the cameras have been in operation.

"That's the cost of doing the business of saving lives,'' Pouncey said. "If you're successful, you're losing (money). That's a fact. There's no way around that."
Jeezus, what half-baked thinking! Germantown could reduce their speed limits to 40mph all over town and save lives, too. Or station officers at every intersection all day long. Want to bet they'll consider that?

And let's look at the math. The per violation cost for the cameras works out to $1.79; the per ticket cost is a bit more at $2.89. The cost of the cameras for the 15 month period comes to $240,000. Germantown ended up paying $24,000 out of pocket -- the difference between ticket revenues generated and leasing costs. So, that means approximately $40 per ticket? Is that what the fine is in Germantown for the violation? Will the City there consider raising the fine to make it operate in the black? It's happening in other cities all around the nation, as they come to see these cameras as easy revenue generators.

Another way of looking at these cameras and their costs is to take the $240,000 cost and divide by the number of tickets. The total number of tickets issued a day is twenty; almost one an hour for both intersections. (Does that compute with your experience driving out there? It seems low to me, in terms of violators.) Is that even vaguely cost-effective?
[ACLU of Tennessee's] Weinberg said the time lag between when a violation is recorded and when a citation arrives in the mail is also problematic for those trying to defend themselves....

Tickets are mailed to the owners of vehicles recorded on camera, regardless of who might have been driving when the violations occurred, Weinberg noted.
No shit. In poorer Memphis that will be a real problem, where several people can share a car and friends frequently borrow. Imagine the difficulties of being working poor, being forced to take off from work for a court appearance and losing income, having to get documentation from friends or employers to prove you didn't drive the car sufficient to please a judge and then having to pull together the notarised paperwork to present at court.

Not to mention all the wasted court time and all the dumbass, lying jokers who will try to plead innocence without any supporting documentation, thinking they're on People's Court. It won't help our already choked court system, that's for sure. Will that extra expense and lost revenue from the judicial side of things be taken into account? I don't think the number of dismissed tickets was mentioned in the story and that should be a factor to consider.

So, needing more investigation, I'd say.

No comments: