House Majority Leader Dick Armey, angry over the use of radar cameras to enforce speed limits on federal roads, will send a letter today to the Interior Department decrying the practice as a “step toward a Big Brother surveillance state.”
Calling it a “spy camera program,” the Texas Republican said the cameras constitute an “encroachment upon our liberty” and could become a significant privacy concern for drivers who use federal parkways.
Specifically, Mr. Armeys staffers point to the two cameras the National Park Service recently installed along the George Washington Memorial Parkway in Northern Virginia.
“Im committed to doing what it takes to make our roads safer, but not at the cost of our fundamental rights,” Mr. Armey writes. “Likewise, I am concerned that this may be seen as a step toward a Big Brother surveillance state, where the government monitors the comings and goings of its citizens.”
Mr. Armey does not travel on the parkway in his typical daily commute, his staffers said, but does use it to go to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.
Richard Diamond, a spokesman for the congressman, said yesterday Mr. Armeys main concern is a potential increase in violations of privacy.
“Where does it go from here?” Mr. Diamond asked. “Where does it end? Whats next for us: seat belt cameras? Cell phone usage cameras? Anti-smoking cameras?”
Whats more, Mr. Armey suggested the Park Service should get congressional approval, or at least a review, before the agency installs any more cameras on federal grounds.
“Now, the Park Service, without congressional approval, is planning to turn this into a revenue-raising system that issues tickets to motorists,” Mr. Armey wrote in the letter.
Federal agencies generally have the authority to propose and enforce rules under their jurisdiction. But Mr. Armeys office argues the unmanned cameras constitute “a novel method” and therefore should have undergone review by the Office of Management and Budget.
Final comments on the proposed rule allowing the photo radar cameras on the parkway were due Oct. 1, but a review of the Federal Register found no indication that a final rule allowing the plan to be implemented was ever published. The Park Service installed one camera near CIA headquarters; the other was put up near Gravelly Point, just north of Reagan National Airport.
Park Service officials were not available for comment last night. But a Sept. 1 release by the agency announcing the new plan for the parkway said it believed “that speeding and aggressive driving are serious problems and that a reliable supplemental speed enforcement tool is necessary.”
The parkway, which winds from Mount Vernon in Fairfax County 38.3 miles northwest to the Capital Beltway, has speed limits ranging from 40 to 50 mph.
The Park Service said the parkway is not designed as a freeway “and is not intended solely to provide a direct and efficient route between two points. Rather, the parkway is designed as a parkway in the traditional sense — taking into account scenery, topography and other natural features — and providing a means for pleasurable driving between and among park areas.”
For those same reasons, the argument goes, traditional enforcement doesnt work. Police do not have wide shoulders on which to park, and turnarounds necessary to catch oncoming speeders are infrequent.
Making matters worse, volume on the parkway is growing steadily.
In 1996 alone, the average daily vehicle traffic volume on the parkway ranged from 43,446 vehicles at the Route 123 ramp to 81,828 vehicles at Reagan National Airport.
More importantly, the Park Service contends, “this large amount of traffic, much of which includes commuter traffic, is mirrored by a significant number of crashes on the parkway.”
Between January 1996 and June 2000, 13 persons have died in motor vehicle crashes on the parkway.
While the Park Service is fairly certain that speeding has not declined, the number of speeding citations issued by Park Police fell from 11,441 in 1997 to 7,996 in 1999, proving that traditional enforcement efforts have been only marginally successful, it said.
Photo radar, the Park Service contended, would allow police to target flagrant speeders in a safe, reliable and nondiscriminatory manner.
“Indeed, because there are some locations where it is difficult for drivers and officers to pull over safely, use of photo radar can be safer for drivers and officers alike,” the Park Service wrote.
But Mr. Armey said in his letter cameras may not always work for the better. Last year in the District, officials wrongfully issued tickets to at least 20,000 motorists caught by one red-light camera. Several of those who received tickets were mourners involved in funeral processions, and ambulances and police cars.
Organizations like AAA Potomac had mixed feelings about Mr. Armeys arguments.
While AAA officials are not excited about the idea of radar cameras to enforce speed limits, they said they are sympathetic with the Park Services attempts to install such equipment to monitor speeding.
“They just dont have the resources to patrol the roads and keep them safe from speeders,” said Lon Anderson, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. “What they are doing is trying to find creative ways to deal with it.”