Smile! Big Brother is watching you!

Last week Dan Rodricks, a local columnist for The Baltimore Sun, wrote about being issued a $40 speeding ticket after an unmanned speed camera clocked his car going 40 miles per hour in a 25 mph zone. He thought it was terribly unfair, because the stretch of road with the speed camera ran by a deserted cemetery, and he thought the cameras were supposed to be placed only in school zones and work zones.

I admit to feeling a moment — just a moment, mind you — of the smug satisfaction liberals must feel when a prominent conservative gets caught doing something unconservative, like soliciting sex in the little boys’ room.

Rodricks is a liberal and, as he says, “I support speed cameras.” So when his own puppy jumps up and bites him on the butt, it’s hard to resist taunting him, “Nyah! Nyah! See, I told you so!”.

But I will resist, partly because Rodricks has a valid complaint. And it’s not just about the speed camera not being anywhere near a school or work zone. The state law authorizing counties and municipalities to set up unmanned speed cameras requires that signs inform motorists that they are in a school or work zone where speed is photo-enforced. The law also requires that warnings, without fines, be issued for the first 30 days a speed camera is in place, but Rodricks was ordered to pay a fine for a violation that took place only eight days after the camera was placed at that location.

While it may not be sporting to rub Rodricks’ speeding ticket in his face, it is fair to ask him what he expected. Apparently, not what he got:

Pardon me if I missed something, but I didn’t think speed cameras, authorized by the General Assembly in 2009, were supposed to just pop up here and there — and, in my case, near a cemetery — but were intended for school zones to protect children on their way to classes.

And even if that’s what the city plans to do — move its speed cameras here and there — doesn’t each new location come with the 30-day grace period?

Sorry, Dan. The cameras never were about safety. They’re about revenue and a way for local governments to collect it without raising taxes. If they were about safety, they would have signs warning you so you would slow down, and they would deploy their limited supply of cameras in front of actual schools instead of cemeteries.

If local governments really cared about safety, they would get rid of stoplight cameras, those other Big Brother devices that are spreading over the landscape. Independent studies (see here, here and here) have shown that stoplight cameras actually increase the frequency of accidents at intersections where they have been installed.

Nevertheless, not only are stoplight cameras showing up at more and more intersections, but local governments have been caught shortening the yellow-light time (which increases accident frequency even more) in order to generate more tickets. The latest city to be caught doing this is Alexandria, VA.

Speed cameras are still too new in the U. S. to have generated enough data for statistical studies of the kind that have been done with stoplight cameras, but one U. K. study has found that the frequency of injury accidents actually increased in work areas where speed cameras were placed. Interestingly, the study was commissioned by the U. K. Department of Transport, which then suppressed the results. A Freedom of Information Act request had to be filed to pry the information loose.

A number of local governments in Maryland have written anticipated revenue from speed cameras into their operating budgets. In this, the champion has to be Cheverly, a town in Prince Georges County just outside the District of Columbia, which has written $2.8 million in “fines and forfeitures” into its fiscal 2011 budget — a 984 percent increase over revenue from that source in last year’s budget. It is not clear whether this includes the expected extra revenue resulting from lowering the town’s default speed limit from 25 to 20 mph.

Other local governments have found creative ways to increase the coverage of speed cameras. Baltimore City has created numerous new school zones — many of which (like the one in which Rodricks was nailed) are not adjacent to a school. This was done partly to take advantage of the fact that existing stoplight cameras can be rigged for double duty as speed cameras. Other jurisdictions are trying, not only to create new school zones, but expand existing ones. At this rate, it won’t be long before the entire state is one big “school zone”.

Speed cameras and stoplight cameras raise a host of civil liberties issues. Not the least of them is the fact that the citations are issued by a private corporation that profits from each one issued. Proponents of cameras say that a sworn police officer has to approve the citations, but that is scant comfort. Police review wasn’t sufficient to prevent 932 citations from just one camera in Baltimore City being issued in error.

Speed and stoplight cameras also violate one of our most fundamental rights — the right to confront one’s accuser in court. In fact, citations are not even issued against the alleged offenders. The cameras snap a picture of the vehicle’s license plate, and the company with the camera contract mails the citation to the vehicle’s registered owner. Some creative high school students in Montgomery County have used this fact to get back at unpopular teachers. They just create a false license plate that matches that of the teacher they’re trying to punk, tape it over their own license plate, and then speed past the camera.

An even more troubling problem for civil liberties is that these cameras give the government the ability to track a person’s movements. Big Brother is watching, and he’s everywhere.

Speed and stoplight cameras have brought something back to America that the Interstate Highway System (and the Voting Rights Act of 1965) had all but eliminated: the speed trap. Back in the 1950s and early 1960s, a long-distance traveler had to pass through many small towns. Some of these towns found ways to use the traffic laws to supplement their budgets. For example, a motorist might be pulled over and cited for going 55 in a 25 mph zone less than 100 feet after a sign stating that the speed limit was 55. He just didn’t see the 25 mph speed limit sign that was right behind it. Or, he might get cited for running a red light that was green when he started through it.

A website, has been set up to monitor on-going developments on the speed camera front. I’ve included it in my blogroll, and anyone who cares about this issue should check this site regularly. Perhaps the most valuable information to be found on the site is this legislative scorecard, detailing how each legislator voted on this issue.

Let’s vote the b*st*rds out!