Friday, March 5, 2010

Blurry Public Focus for Traffic Cameras

Several developing stories are capturing the real picture about the use of traffic cameras by state and local governments.

In the Big Easy, some of the biggest scofflaws of paying traffic camera fines are New Orleans city employees driving taxpayer-financed vehicles.  Based upon a freedom of information request, New Orleans city workers racked up over $547,000 in fines as of September, 2011.  Moreover, five of the top twenty traffic camera violators were city vehicles.  Mayor Mitch Landrieu (D-New Orleans) claims that he wants to quit letting the good times roll so the policy will be changed so that city workers will be responsible for tickets that they accrue unless they are responding to an emergency.  If the ticket is delinquent by more than 90 days, the city employee may be subject to disciplinary measures and any unpaid fines supposedly will be subtracted from the offending department’s budget.

Before this policy goes into effect, however, New Orleans is wiping the slate clean and the prior fines will be forgiven since there was not clarity about waivers and it would be difficult to collect the fines. OK, public servants need to be warned that the law applies to them and their tickets will not automatically be fixed or effectively ignored. Perhaps obeying the law needed to be clarified with public sector unions.  But at least New Orleans new policy will require an emergency for a waiver.

In the Free State, Maryland Delegate Frank Conaway (D-MD 40th, Baltimore city) has introduced two bills that would exempt all “emergency vehicles” (State Bill 848) and all law enforcement vehicles (State Bill 857) from traffic enforcement camera fines. The problem with these bills is that it makes no distinction as to whether or not these public responders are actually answering an emergency call.  Such legislation puts us further down the road to creating a special class for public employees who are above the law, whether or not they are responding to emergencies.

It seems that Maryland elected officials are tired of hearing constituents crabbing about speed camera tickets.  Despite public assurance to the contrary by sponsors of SB486/HB944, the legislation which was approved by the Maryland Senate allows private contractors to make determinations of traffic camera violations. Specifically, buried in the Fiscal Policy Notes section states:

 The bill authorizes a person trained in speed monitoring system enforcement who is either employed by or under contract with a law enforcement agency to sign a citation or swear to or affirm that a speed monitoring system violation occurred. Thus, in addition to shifting these duties from duly authorized police officers to other trained employees of the law enforcement agency, agencies are authorized to utilize private contractors for this service.

So Maryland is poised to allow individuals other than sworn Law Enforcement Officers to both maintain traffic cameras as well as to make determinations of infractions.  This blurs the distinction between the law and corporations which can deprive citizens of liberty.  Moreover, testimony before a public forum in Baltimore on traffic cameras reveals that 50% of the revenue would go to the traffic camera contractor.  And this is before the private sector contractors become the official adjudicators for traffic cameras.

Currently, corporations stand to make a sizeable profit from maintaining traffic cameras under the guise of government enforcement.  Now Maryland legislators want to subrogate their sovereign rights to a for-profit corporation to supposedly improve public safety? Such a progressive policy sharing police power by a nanny state which co-opts the private sector to control its citizenry stinks of liberal fascism, corporate socialism with a happy face.

These Big Brother tactics of traffic cameras were initially sold to the public as instruments of public safety and efficiency.   Studies have shown that there may only be a negligible improvement in public safety with the use of red light cameras, with some questions about ancillary rear end crashes and questions about the profit motive.

The Maryland Legislature has effectively dropped the pretense that traffic cameras are meant for public safety purposes.  In testifying for her House Bill 372, Delegate Carolyn Howard (D-MD 24th Prince George’s County) asserted: "A government official made a statement that speed cameras were going to be moved so they could generate more revenue. That was not the purpose of the bill when it was passed."  The Maryland House Environmental Matters Committee voted to give the bill an “Unfavorable” rating, which basically killed the bill thereby blessing the practice of relocating speed cameras for profit.

In an era where the public till is empty, governments will look means other than direct taxation to augment their coffers.  These automated traffic controls seem like they are greed cameras that are revenue enhancement tools that the public sector can liberally exempt itself, crony corporations can handsomely profit and which only modestly improve public safety. By  vesting sovereignty to corporations for traffic cameras comes only comes at the cost of sacrificing our liberty and constitutional right to confront law enforcement at the time of alleged infractions to companies that will profit without strong public scrutiny. Such a deal!

Voters better learn how to focus on how our elected officials are blurring the lines between public and private as well as the proper public rationale for traffic cameras lest we be governed by the likes of Omni Consumer Products à la Robocop (1987).