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Why do Many People Hate Speed Cameras?

Here is a song called "905" by The Who. It is reminiscent of "A Brave New World" and is about a man living in a futuristic police state.

About a week ago, I was listening to a story on NPR about cameras that were being used by the state of Arizona to catch people who were driving too fast. This is a practice similar to the use of red light cameras here in California and in several other states. The focus of the story was on the anger that these cameras have generated in Arizona and on the many ways that people are expressing this frustration. One man drove around in a monkey mask to avoid being recognized in his car. A large percentage of the people who had received in the mail the more than $300 fine for speeding had not yet sent in their payments. There was even a case where a worker for the private company that maintains the cameras was shot and killed by a disgruntled motorist. Due to many complaints from citizens and from some government officials in Arizona, there is a good chance that these cameras may soon go away. Where does all of this anger come from?

I can think of several legitimate reasons why many people hate the concept of speed cameras. First of all, they feed in to the already common fear regarding the possible emergence of a “police state.” If traffic enforcement cameras become increasingly common and accepted, it may set the precedent for other types of law enforcement cameras in the future. At some point, there could theoretically be cameras watching our every move.

Second, there is good reason to worry that enforcement may not be fair. Will people who pass a camera on the freeway going 68 miles per hour receive the same fine as someone doing 90? On residential streets, enforcement could be even less fair because it is often difficult to even know the speed limit. Also, even if you assume that the driver is aware of the speed limit, it is so easy to lose focus for a few seconds and allow yourself to go a little too fast. Will law enforcement officials reviewing the camera footage show a little understanding toward drivers who were inadvertently slightly speeding? Living, breathing traffic cops probably won’t stop you when you are going 45 MPH in a 40 zone. But what will the cameras be programmed to do? After all, you are technically speeding when you drive one mile per hour beyond the speed limit.

Others might question the motives behind these speed cameras. State and local governments are strapped for cash these days. In the name of law enforcement, have these cameras mainly been set up to raise some revenue? If the motivation is primarily economic, there will be a built-in incentive to catch as many people as possible. Very strict enforcement, therefore, could be the norm. The people mentioned in the previous paragraph who may have been slightly speeding could someday find a big traffic fine in the mail, and in many cases, these “speeders” may have actually put no one at risk.

I understand all of these fears, but I can’t help thinking that some of this anger is not so legitimate. All of us, in theory, recognize the need for a wide variety of traffic laws. People cannot be trusted to drive safely simply because they know that it is the right thing to do. We also recognize that the number of police officers is limited, so the highway patrol cannot catch most of the people who routinely break traffic laws. Cameras, of course, could change this equation. Now, in certain areas, there will always be “someone” watching. The roads should then be safer. Indeed, NPR reported in that story that traffic accidents had gone down in Arizona, and yet the people keep complaining.

This anger is one of many symptoms of a deep-seated ambivalence toward government in our country. We want the government to do its job, with public safety, according to many people, being its most important responsibility. Most Americans when asked would also agree that law enforcement officials should receive the resources that they need. Then, if government either asks for these resources or takes action to actually enforce laws that we all agree are necessary, we bitch about it. Deep down, we want the government to let us drive the way we want. They should enforce laws, but only when it is other people breaking them. After all, government should only go out and punish the truly dangerous drivers, something few Americans would ever admit to being. And of course, the government should never take away our God-given “right” to drive.

In many ways, the government cannot win. If they take strong measures to maintain public security or to deal with any other problems, we complain, particularly if their actions affect us personally. Then, if there are lots of traffic accidents, or if, “theoretically,” something crazy like a financial meltdown almost happens because of foolish borrowers and lenders involving themselves in ridiculous home mortgages  - and strange financial instruments that were built on a foundation of these bad mortgages - we blame the government and tell them to fix things. When financial institutions, real estate speculators, and unworthy borrowers were profiting from their risk-taking, they wanted government to both encourage this behavior and to not burden them with annoying regulations. Then, when the risk-taking stopped paying off, they often blamed the government and demanded a bailout.

Of course, it is difficult to find the right balance between too much and too little government. We want the government to provide many services but do not want to pay a lot of taxes. We want the government too keep us safe without infringing on our privacy and other personal freedoms. We want a government that prevents corporate abuses but does not regulate too much. Then, when things go wrong, we blame the government that we never wanted to do too much in the first place.

If the post-9/11 era has taught us anything, it is that we should be wary of a government that takes drastic measures in the name of keeping us safe. Personal freedom without responsibility, however, can also be a dangerous thing. There are lots of drivers on our roads who should not be out there. We all see them every day. Cars are too dangerous to allow just anyone to drive them. However, it is an unfortunate truth that strictly enforcing traffic laws and taking away the driver’s licenses of those who consistently break them will not earn politicians a lot of votes. Also, telling certain people that they may not be able to afford a home or requiring powerful financial institutions to follow certain rules can be politically risky. Unfortunately, many Americans, and possibly the human race in general, are shortsighted, self-centered individuals who do not want to be held accountable for their actions. I guess it is easier to blame the other political party or the government in general for everything and to keep making unreasonable demands.


  1. I remember a while back hearing that some state had raised the fine for speeding so excessively high that there was public outcry, and the fine reverted back to a reasonable amount.

    When I lived in New York City, there were a few red light cameras, and I got a ticket once. It went by license plate rather than the driver.

    I agree that there is some big brother aspect to the speed cameras. If only people would get this riled up about the government not helping everyone get healthcare.

  2. Hello. I started following your blog after reading "Why I'm Not Another Burned Out Teacher". It was good information for a wanna- be (I'm the wanna-be). I actually would love to teach art at a community college! I still have a long way to go!


    I like your posts. They are always informative, insightful, and well written. You've covered all the bases here.

    I'll just add my own experience. Upon opening my own ticket including pictures of my car, I just felt creeped out. I'm with those who can see the slippery slope though it may well be a falacy.

  3. I live in Arizona and there is a very simple way for us to solve the camera problem. Drive the speed limit. I do. I get flipped off, cursed at, tailgated and more. I am following the law and it ticks people off. I loved your post.
    Mystery Teacher

  4. As my post indicated, I agree with both of you. Cameras make me nervous, but I also think that people should stop complaining and follow the traffic laws. Driving is a privilege, not a right. Thanks for reading. And Jen, I recommend community college teaching. It's a good gig. The only problem is that you will probably have to start part-time like me.

  5. I have mixed feelings about replacing officers with technology.

    Unlike officers who are helpful to communities, the officers in question sit like predators in "speed traps," where the land usually slopes down and the road is wide. They aim radar guns all day write ticket after ticket for what I deem innocent drivers who are technically breaking the law yet driving safely.

    Because I see these officer's job as parasitic I would not care too much if they were replaced by technology. However, some officers are less hidden and serve a warning to drivers that they are in a speed trap. It gives drivers a chance to slow down.

    I'd be okay with the cameras if they were framed in a way that allows drivers to see them and slow down.


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