Urgent Matters

The readers always write: Speed cameras

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Despite what some readers think, speed cameras--which combine video, sensor and data-analytics technology--will become an important life-saving tool. 

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a column about a St. Louis suburb that had installed a speed camera on one of its main thoroughfares, and after a period of time saw a dramatic reduction in the number of violations that the system detected. I wrote that this was a good thing. The column elicited several responses from readers, which I thought I would address today.

A couple of readers suggested that the speed camera’s true purpose is to generate revenue for the municipality. This struck them as being nefarious. Undeniably, the municipality is collecting fines from speeders. But keep in mind that violations are being issued only to those who exceed the posted speed limit by at least 10 miles per hour. That seems to be sufficient leeway—people are not being cited for driving just a couple of miles over the limit. Also, the camera is highly visible, so no one can complain about this being a speed trap.

Another couple of readers suggested that speed cameras are analogous to a Band-Aid, and what’s really needed is better traffic engineering. They’ll get no argument from me on that one. Living in the Chicago area, I can tell you that the roads are clogged all the time. This leads to frustration, which leads to more-aggressive driving. But I also think that people are more aggressive today just by nature, and this manifests on our roadways. I really don’t care when people go 10 miles over the limit—but I do care when they are going 20 or 30 miles over, because that puts everyone else at greater risk. 

Corollary to this, I don’t believe that these limits were set arbitrarily; instead, someone, somewhere, gave some thought and study to them. Consequently, I don’t think, as one reader suggested, that mass non-compliance with speed limits indicates that they have been set too low. Rather, I believe that the real culprit is that many people are impatient, for a variety of reasons, and they really don’t care about anyone around them. What matters most to them is arriving where they need to go, as quickly as possible. So they drive as fast as they can. This is pretty easy where I live, as there is very little speed enforcement. Most of the time, you can drive the entire expanse of Chicago’s expressways and never see a police officer with a radar gun.

This is a big problem. In a report issued in April 2010, the Federal Highway Administration—which is part of the U.S. Department of Transportation—said that speeding—which was defined as exceeding the posted speed limit or driving too fast for conditions—was a significant factor in crashes. Indeed, between 1996 and 2006, speeding was a factor in about one-third of fatal crashes, and the number of deaths ranged from 11,000 to 13,000 each year.

“Thus, speeding is a significant safety issue warranting attention based on its size and impact on society,” the report stated. “While the United States has seen progress in other major safety issues such as occupant restraint use and driving under the influence of alcohol, little if any progress has been made with speeding.”

Discuss this Blog Entry 5

Anonymous (not verified)
on Jan 2, 2014

Suggest you check out the Arizona law that issues citations for driving much below the POSTED highway speed limit. Since implementing that law,
crashes have been reduced. Rear ended crashes all but gone.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Jan 2, 2014

Speed kills but violators of physics hopefully only kill themselves. Unfortunately, as many of them drive fast in ordinary conditions and do not slow in adverse conditions (rain, snow, etc.), it may be that in the future, we'll see (conditional posted) speed limits of 35/regular vs. 25/conditional and the cameras fining at the lower speed. I.e., the speed limit sign isn't a static metal sign, instead, as a mini-weather station, it has multiple modes and the speed camera near the sign is aligned to the SLS and fines appropriately.

on Jan 2, 2014

Glenn, traffic cameras always generate lots of discussion I am sure. One area where I think they should be used is at traffic intersections where cars regularly blow through red lights. There are few accidents, other than head on collisions that cause more damage than being t-boned in an intersection.

I believe you used the wrong formula for the crash energy. The correct formula is Energy(Inertia) = Mass times velocity-squared or E=MV*2. This means that damage goes up with the square of the speed. (This why a lighter bullet travelling at higher speed can have as much or more energy than a slower heavy bullet. Think 9mm versus .45 cal.) This is the same problem as driving too fast and too close or closing on someone too fast. The vehicle brakes have to burn off much more energy to stop.

Couple speed with snow or ice and one has a very dangerous situation.

Plus, always wear seat belts!

Quentin (not verified)
on Jan 3, 2014

Good article, very true. The physics though is slightly wrong. It's actually worse than what's written. What matters in a crash is the kinetic energy. e.g. if the crashing vehicle was going at 40 mph instead of 30 mph, the force of the crash (proportional to energy) is 78% larger, not 33%.

MTV (not verified)
on Jan 6, 2014

I am a cop AND a radar instructor. I can give you at least five (5) reasons why a radar can/will misread the speed of a vehicle and/or get confused about which vehicle is actually driving at what speed. This is why there should be an OPERATOR sitting behind that radar, not a computer. Should I receive a citation generated by a speed camera, the jurisdiction responsible for placing the camera better hold on tight. I will push litigation against the stupid thing as far up the court system as I am able to go.

A key part of our constitution states a defendant has a right to confront his accuser. This is not possible when the "accuser" is a faceless, essentially brainless computer. Regardless of all the claims made by the manufacturer, I can tell you from first-hand experience these gizmos WILL misread your speed and/or get the speed of one vehicle confused with another.

If you get a citation generated by one of these things, FIGHT IT!

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Glenn Bischoff is the editor-in-chief and publisher of Urgent Communications magazine. Over a 30-year journalism career, his publications have won several ASBPE awards for editorial excellence. He...

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