Wednesday, Apr 25, 2018
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Op-Ed Columns

Let the traffic cops, not technology, issue citations to citizens

GIVEN the interest in regulating the authority of law enforcement to use remote cameras to catch drivers who run red lights, perhaps a little history review is appropriate.

When the federal speed limit on interstate highways was reduced to 55 mph, fuel conservation was cited as the primary reason.

However, strangely enough, when this concern was no longer quite so acute, many sought to keep the lower limit in force, re-defining it as a safety issue.

Supporters of preserving the measure came up with the slogan "55 saves lives." Also, they often asserted that if even one life was saved, it would more than compensate for the inconvenience of motorists wishing to drive faster.

As noble as that sentiment appears, there exist numerous logical and practical difficulties with it.

The major shortcoming of this viewpoint is the demonstrably false impression it creates that in the estimation of society, safety always trumps every other consideration.

The simple fact is that no matter how sorry we may feel any time a tragedy occurs, the very existence of a speed limit - or indeed automobiles themselves - refutes the safety-above-all notion as a general rule.

After all, if our paramount concern is reducing highway fatalities to the lowest number possible, why settle for even a 55 speed limit?

Surely an even lower limit would further reduce casualties, and a return to horse-and-buggy days would all but eliminate them.

However, society has determined that realizing the benefits of automobiles is worth incurring some level of risk.

The question then becomes: What level of risk is most acceptable in exchange for the benefits to be derived? This same principle applies across the entire spectrum of human endeavor.

Which brings us back to the red-light cameras. A bill currently being considered by an Ohio House legislative committee would prohibit state and local governments from issuing tickets to drivers caught running a stoplight by a camera, unless a police officer is there to issue it.

Toledo Police Chief Mike Navarre recently appeared before the committee and argued against the proposed restrictions, saying it would lead to an increase in serious accidents.

In so doing, he was again appealing to the "safety trumps all" principle.

He flatly stated that the enhanced revenue collected by the city is not an issue, a statement accepted at face value for present purposes.

For its part, the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio has questioned both the constitutionality and the effectiveness of the camera policy.

While this writer is hardly a card-carrying member of the ACLU (particularly when issues arise such as the public acknowledgment of God, terrorism, crime prevention measures, and certain questions regarding free speech), in this instance there appears to be much common ground.

Once again (as with the speed limit issue) the question goes deeper than merely whether the cameras reduce accidents.

The central issue is: To what extent should technological development be allowed to impinge upon individual autonomy?

In other words, merely because it is possible to monitor motorists in such a manner, does that make it desirable?

The first obvious problem is the scenario in which a vehicle pictured going through an intersection is driven by someone other than the registered owner.

Should someone be penalized for an infraction they themselves did not commit? What are the implications in such a case for the presumption of innocence?

But there are other, equally troubling, concerns.

To illustrate, let's imagine (in an Orwellian fashion) that it were possible to instantaneously identify every single vehicle that at a given moment was exceeding the speed limit, rolling through a stop sign on a vacated street, or going through a stop light a fraction of a second too late.

Further imagine that each such infraction (no matter how miniscule) would result in a citation and fine.

Or, to take things one step further, what if it were possible for the authorities to track every single public or private action any individual takes, and duly cite them for each misstep?

It seems doubtful that many would care to live under such circumstances - though there would presumably be far fewer accidents or other moral deviations pervading such a society.

The point, of course, is that while we all value diligent law enforcement, there is a point where we do not wish to have Big Brother constantly peering over our collective shoulder.

Clearly we want reckless drivers to be held accountable.

However, it doesn't follow that every available technological resource should be utilized to ensure even the slightest incidental infractions are prosecuted.

You may recall the debate over whether the legal blood-alcohol content level that constitutes drunk driving should be lowered from 0.10 to 0.08.

(Though to call that a true debate is a misnomer because states faced the loss of sorely needed federal funding if they didn't accept the lower standard.)

Still, opponents pointed out (and accident data confirmed) that a disproportionate number of highway fatalities were caused by those who were well above the higher limit.

Therefore, lowering the limit further does not address the real issue. This present case is very similar. The people who are most responsible for causing serious accidents are not the ones primarily targeted by this new initiative.

The most incorrigible drivers are not likely to be deterred by the cameras, and the only way they can be neutralized is by removing them from the road - something that will not be accomplished by vicarious measures.

Meanwhile, the ones who will be targeted are not the ones truly endangering other motorists, and therefore should not be subjected to such intrusive surveillance.

It has been observed that a hallmark of Louis XIV's France was "tyranny made tolerable by inefficiency."

That is, had all existing laws been enforced to the fullest extent possible, even weightier oppression would have resulted.

The fact that they weren't alleviated much additional suffering.

However, because modern technology provides a much greater capacity for efficiency, common sense must prevail in keeping society "tolerable."

And in this case, common sense dictates that citizens should be afforded the consideration of having their citations issued by human beings, not machines.

Greg Franke is a broadcaster and a freelance writer. He lives in Portage, Ohio.

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