In keeping with that very modern desire to find complex solutions to problems that don’t exist, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg expressed his desire on Monday to put cameras on “every corner of the city” to enforce observance of red lights and, eventually perhaps, speed limits. And so, in the same year that the Los Angeles City Council considered the evidence from its trial run and unanimously voted to do away with L.A.’s camera system, explaining bluntly that the “program did not work as anticipated,” Mayor Bloomberg is blithely seeking to expand New York’s camera network.
As the Los Angeles experience demonstrates, Bloomberg is swimming against the tide. There is no electoral mandate for the introduction of so-called “safety” cameras in the United States. In fact, the opposite is the case: Photo enforcement has never survived a public vote in America. This looks unlikely to change any time soon: In response to the panoply of attempts to institute camera regimes in a variety of cities over the last 20 years, 15 states and countless cities have passed measures that expressly prohibit ticketing based on camera evidence. Perhaps most famously, Arizona recently declined to renew its flagship speed-enforcement program after just two years of operation, during which time motorists had revolted against the measure to such an extent that they paid only 30 percent of all tickets issued, and even rendered cameras inoperative with Silly String, Post-It notes, pickaxes, and bullets.
Such contempt is not new. Americans have been uncomfortable with the intrusion from the outset. The first speed-camera systems installed in the United States were in Friendswood, Texas, in 1986 and La Marque, Texas, in 1987, and both programs elicited such vehement public opposition that they were dropped within a matter of months. Americans are wise to react in this way: Traffic cameras have no place in a free society.
The issue touches on first principles. There is a strong constitutional case against enforcement cameras, and it is one we should not be afraid to make, despite the condescending way in which such talk is peremptorily dismissed by camera advocates. Laws are contracts between people: They are passed by people, enforced by people, and adjudicated by people. It should be no other way in a country whose Constitution starts with the words “We the people.” Specifically, the Sixth Amendment guarantees the right of the accused “to be confronted with the witnesses against him.” Clearly this is impossible when the witness is a camera. The social compact — like a skyscraper, which must be designed to be able to sway slightly in the wind — needs a certain pliancy to survive. There is an important space between the spirit and the letter of the law, one that a machine cannot navigate.
Driving is complex. We do not passively hitch our vehicles to a regulated monorail and sit back with folded arms. Rather, we enjoy the autonomy of employing our judgment and reacting to the conditions around us. It is sensible, of course, to set rules governing drivers’ conduct on the public roads, but not to divorce these rules from reality, or enforce them blindly out of context.
A police officer is capable of making necessary judgment calls and taking the driving environment into account. There are certain questions that are germane to establishing the severity of an offense: Was the accused keeping up with traffic? Were the roads wet? Was the speeder reacting to a dangerous or reckless driver? And what about those who endanger others by, say, driving too slowly? Machines cannot answer these questions, only people can. Only people should.
In a preemptive response to such criticisms, Mayor Bloomberg contended that there is an economic advantage to enforcement cameras, as they are cheaper than employing more people. This is undoubtedly true. But leaving aside cameras’ lack of capacity for common sense and discretion, there is a real cost to reliance on technology. Although serious, speeding and running red lights are not the only issues on America’s roads. Dumb cameras can do very little to detect other problems, such as drunk or dangerous driving. More problematic in camera-heavy areas, particularly in rural locations, is the temptation to fall into a false sense of security and reduce the number of police and patrol officers. This can have the unfortunate side-effect of encouraging other dangerous behavior, which cameras cannot catch.
Further, the experience of Europe teaches us that programs that start with relatively innocuous red-light cameras rarely end there. To see where this road leads, one needs to look no further than the United Kingdom. The Scepter’d Isle is now enveloped by a sordid web of almost two million surveillance cameras, which are incessantly taking photographs and videos of its citizens, the vast majority of whom are innocent. The average Briton is caught on camera 70 times per day — more frequently in London and other major cities. On the road, ubiquitous “average speed check” cameras, which photograph every car at least twice along a given stretch of road and then calculate the average speed it was going, do not — cannot — distinguish between the innocent and the guilty. The upshot is that in the U.K., Orwell’s Telescreens may be not in our bedrooms, but they are everywhere else.
In some boroughs of London there are even cameras that regulate parking. Unsurprisingly, stories abound in which fines have been issued to those who were merely unloading their vehicles or dropping off passengers, but who were caught by a camera inherently incapable of making a reasonable distinction. Indeed, so surveillance happy is the British government that, with a straight face, it has proposed installing state GPS trackers in every car and taxing drivers by the mile. With such a clear example of the endgame across the pond, there is no excuse for anyone in America to claim that he cannot see where the camera culture inevitably leads.
If the citizenry nonetheless accepts the imposition — something Americans have been admirably steadfast in refusing to do — the revenues from a camera culture can be considerable. Last year, the city of New York took in $52 million from its 150 existing red-light cameras. If his purpose is to increase revenues, Mayor Bloomberg is sensible to advocate an expansion of the program, but he could at least be honest with his constituents as to why he thinks the proposition so necessary. And then, as elsewhere in the country, it should be put to a vote.
— Charlie Cooke is an editorial intern at National Review.