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WILLIAMS: Speed camera use robs us of our humanity

- - Sunday, April 28, 2013

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Last year the District of Columbia's speed cameras generated $95.6 million in revenue. That was double 2011's receipts, so you can bet there was dancing in the hallways at city hall over an extra $50 million in the coffers. And what did this cost you? Only your basic rights.

Speed cameras are sold as a means of protection. Over and over you will hear politicians and the makers of these cash cows talk about safety. "Safety this. Safety that. Think of the children, and I'm offended you think that we are doing this only for the money."

The truth: It's all about the money.

How do I know? First, look at where the cameras are located. Most are on major commuter routes and few are in school zones and residential areas. This tells me that the cameras are aimed at taking money from tourists and commuters far more than at protecting schoolchildren.

Another telling detail: Speed cameras do not cost you points on your license nor affect your insurance rates. Pay your fine, and the city is happy.

Also, the speed limits change right before you pass the cameras. Usually, it is a sudden 10 mph drop. What was once legal is suddenly illegal, and everyone slams on the brakes once they realize the camera is there. So it's a gotcha game as well as a driving hazard.

We all hate getting pulled over by cops, but if someone is driving in a dangerous fashion, police can make that call and immediately do something to save lives. Speed-camera tickets come in the mail two weeks later. If I were driving like a fool, these cameras would not pull me over and save a life.

Furthermore, officers can warn you. Many times, you may not realize you have broken the law. Say you forgot to turn on your lights, your taillight went out, or you blew through a stop sign you didn't see in an unfamiliar area. A human can stop you and instantly correct your behavior, determine that you made an innocent mistake and let you go on your way.

Even when the cop writes a ticket, you immediately know what you did wrong and can correct your actions.

When you think the cop is wrong, you can challenge the ticket in a court of law. That is why we have due process and the right to face our accuser. Humans make mistakes, and it is a fundamental constitutional right to give our side of the story. A computer does not listen or consider circumstances; it simply executes a code.

Even makers of speed-camera equipment have acknowledged problems — incorrect speed limits, programming errors that led to one out of 20 cars being automatically ticketed, etc. Yet it is difficult, if not impossible, to subpoena the records and challenge the ticket.

"Just pay it. Waiving your rights is no big deal. It's not like it costs you your license," the politicians say.

But $100 is a big deal for a lot of working folks. Even if they get caught once, their monthly budget suddenly is blown. Of course they won't know for two weeks, so they probably will owe more than $100.

Furthermore, some of the revenue that speed cameras generate goes to the corporations selling and maintaining the equipment. They have a vested interest in getting you to break the law because they receive $1 for every $4 you are fined.

Why would we, as a society, want a robot to indiscriminately determine our guilt or innocence? A machine can do only what it is programmed to do, nothing more. It cannot weigh evidence, consider arguments or judge testimony. If there is an error in programming or if the machine breaks down, both of which happen regularly, you get a ticket. We have given these machines ultimate authority, despite knowing their limitations.

Only real people can address a situation and determine the proper course of action when it comes to enforcing and interpreting the law.

A neighbor sees children playing cops and robbers. A machine registers someone waving a gun and reports a threat.

A policeman sees a woman driving to work, momentarily above the limit but slowing down into the flow of traffic. A machine logs a speeding ticket and puts the ticket in the mail.

Speed cameras may have been enacted initially for public safety, but that idea has been washed away by torrents of cash. The No. 1 protector of the streets has been and always should be a human police officer — one who can assess the entire situation, act immediately and be held accountable in a court of law. Allowing the proliferation of machines to dole out fines robs us not only of our rights, but a piece of our humanity as well.

Read Armstrong Williams, author of the new book "Reawakening Virtues." Join him from 4-5 a.m. and 6-7 p.m. daily on Sirius/XM Power 128. Become a fan on Facebook, and follow him on Twitter.