When I was a kid, a common practice on the highway was to flash headlights to warn oncoming drivers of a radar trap. Drivers considered it a courtesy. Police considered it to be a nuisance, obstructing their mission of nabbing speeders.
I wondered about the logic of the enforcement argument. If safety was the issue, wasn't warning drivers to slow down a good thing? The idea, of course was that they would only slow enough to escape the consequence, then they would speed up again. So why not encourage drivers to flash their headlights when there is no speed trap? Everyone drives more safely, and accidents are reduced. Life expectancy goes up.
When radar detectors became more common, along with laws restricting them, I followed a similar reasoning. Surely police could dramatically increase their efficiency by placing unmanned radar generators at various hidden points. Drivers getting a signal of impending enforcement would drive more reasonably, at least for a while.
Today's new enforcement technology utilizes cameras at intersections. A well timed flash captures a photo of an offender running a light complete with license plate. Some studies show such automated enforcement does reduce injury, although only slightly. The severity of injury may be the issue. If front-to-side collisions send more folks to the emergency room or the morgue, then reducing that sort of collision, even as the occasional fender bender statistically increases, it would seem to be a good trade off.
But the effectiveness of the technology is presenting a new obstacle. A few months ago, municipalities began shying away from the use of cameras at intersections. It seems the automatic enforcement was causing drivers to slow down, reducing violations, limiting revenue.
It brings back memories of the good old 1980s. States were having trouble qualifying for federal traffic funds because the percentage of speed violators was too high. The Reagan administration sent out an army of consultants to show local officials how to reduce speeding and qualify for the money. They moved measuring mechanisms to the tops of hills, where gravity would lend a helping hand. No motorist left behind.
William F. Buckley once suggested that he would like police to lust after criminals even as a politician lusts after votes. Just when we were growing out of the hackneyed sneer about police officers meeting ticket quotas, we find that enforcement is not all about safety after all.
Local government is lusting after the fines.
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