Red light cameras, speed cameras, and license plate readers are among the world's most divisive technological innovations. Over the past several decades, they've quietly cropped up on buildings, at intersections, and in parking garages around the globe, slowly altering our definition of "personal privacy".
But in recent years, cities and states have pushed back. This week, it's happened in Maryland, where speed camera operators are now subject to tighter rules governing the way they identify, ticket, and collect fines from motorists.
RANDOM RUMBLE, OR EVIDENCE OF A SEISMIC SHIFT?
Traffic camera systems are attractive to cities and counties for several reasons, including:
1) They're not expensive to operate: Typically, traffic cam systems are managed by third parties, meaning that cash-strapped municipalities don't have to shell out for billing drivers, monitoring and maintaining equipment, or other associated tasks.
2) They're not expensive to install: Rates vary, but operators typically make the bulk of their money by taking a cut of ticket revenue, minimizing upfront costs to the city.
3) They generate cash: A traffic officer, working very quickly, can write up around four, maybe five motorists an hour, letting other violators whiz by. A red light camera, on the other hand, can write as many tickets as needed -- and it doesn't need to stop for coffee breaks. As long as drivers break the law, camera operators will continue generating dough for cities and counties, most of which desperately need it.
But there's something about being pegged by a camera that rubs motorists the wrong way. In Ohio, a judge called them "a scam". In Rochester, scandal ensued when the public learned that city workers weren't having to pay their tickets. And in places like Albuquerque, Houston, and Los Angeles, camera systems are being unplugged altogether.
Maryland hasn't gone as far as that, but a new statewide law that goes into effect today does offer significantly more protection for motorists. Among the law's more prominent features:
"Bounty systems" are outlawed: As of today, cities and counties in Maryland can no longer pay the operators of speed camera systems based on how many tickets they issue.
Cameras are regulated by another third party: To ensure that systems operate fairly, speed and red light cameras are calibrated at independent labs. That means that camera operators can't rig a system to make it more sensitive in an effort to generate more tickets.
Contractors have to pay: Not all tickets issued by camera are fair. As mentioned above, cameras can be calibrated to be too sensitive, or in other cases, they might be unfairly positioned. In Maryland, if more than five percent of the citations issued by a single camera are found to be erroneously issued over the course of a year, the contractor will be fined half of the lost revenue.
Transparency: According to the new law, the Maryland Police Training Commission is obligated to issue full reports on speed camera stats and to make those reports public.
Maryland's new laws won't get rid of speed cameras altogether, and maybe that's okay. Organizations like the IIHS insist that some cameras -- especially red light cameras -- have a dramatic effect on reducing traffic accidents.
What Maryland's law does -- and what needs to be done in many, many other locales -- is create tighter regulation of the speed/red light camera industry. We're still not sold on the idea of being policed by cameras, but if it's going to happen, we'd like to know that there's significant oversight of the system.