Catching Speeders: Cops or Cameras

"Smile, you're speeding," is the message from photo radar, the new high-tech camera that snaps pictures of speeding cars and their drivers. The only thing the police have to do is look at the photos, match license numbers with state records, and mail the tickets.

Photo radar's electronic policemen are on the beat throughout the country, but they aren't writing tickets yet in Michigan because state law requires a human witness to convict a driver of a traffic violation. Should Michigan legalize photo radar? At the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, we think there are good arguments on both sides.

Yes, Michigan should legalize photo radar. Photo radar can save lives. About 40,000 people are killed in traffic accidents each year in the U.S. and speeding is often involved. To try to halt this carnage, Paradise Valley, Arizona, in 1987 became the first town in America to use photo radar. When speeding declined and traffic accidents dropped, other cities adopted photo radar and are seeing positive results. If speeders think they might get tickets, they slow down, making the roads safer for everyone.

Photo radar can also save money. With ticket machines, one person can do the work that 19 now do. The police are freer to stop real crime, and cities gain by having fewer bureaucrats (whether or not they collect more ticket revenue). Safe drivers win, too. People with few or no tickets may be eligible for discounts on their car insurance.

As for ticket costs, speed limits, and stop signs, municipalities can resolve those sensibly at the ballot box or in city halls. Some cities have voted photo radar out and some have voted it in. Politicians who try to cash in with unnecessary stop signs and low speed limits will have to defend themselves at election time.

Ticket machines will not deprive Michiganians of their rights. In fact, equality before the law is strongly protected. All speeders are photographed regardless of race, creed, sex, age, or political influence. Ticket machines are typically set to capture only those exceeding the speed limit by at least 11 m.p.h. No one else is photographed. And if accused speeders wish to challenge the pictures taken by the machines, they can do so.

In the 1990s, cities and states all over the nation are resisting tax hikes, privatizing city services, and cutting the costs of government everywhere. Photo radar is cost effective, and its use can save lives and money if we legalize it in Michigan.

No, Michigan should reject photo radar. We don't want Big Brother peering through our windshields any more than we want to empty our wallets into city and state treasuries. Michigan police groups are testing the political climate to see if Michigan voters will tolerate tickets by photo radar. If the legislature makes it legal, some cities in Michigan may use the popular cause of traffic safety to justify an automated ticket blitz that will cost drivers a fortune and do nothing for traffic safety.

Cities will be tempted to turn as many drivers as possible into violators. Machine-issued tickets may cause stop signs and low speed limits to proliferate, for the purpose of trapping motorists and raising revenue. Such exploitation is already going on elsewhere. In some eastern states that retain the 55-m.p.h. speed limit on freeways, fines have shot up to $150. This is a tax on motorists, levied randomly for behavior that is legal elsewhere and safe everywhere (on freeways).

In Michigan, drivers have some protection; fines from tickets issued by the State Police go to county library funds. This sound provision removes the incentive for the State Police to write too many tickets, but "assessments" of $10 were applied in 1989 and 1991 to all traffic tickets to fund State Police patrols and training. These assessments are an incentive for state-run speed traps.

Across the Detroit River in Ontario, motorists have no Constitutional right to confront their accusers. There, radar cameras are used that can issue 1,600 speeding tickets a day. Fifty clerks read license numbers on photos and send tickets by mail that cost drivers $66,000,000 (Can.) per year. Loud claims are made that this improves traffic safety, but how can this be if the cameras are hidden and the drivers are not informed of their mistake until weeks later?

We can keep tickets from turning into taxes in Michigan if we outlaw funding of police operations from ticket revenue; require that speed limits be set by engineering studies, not local politicians; and jealously guard our right to confront a human accuser.

Photo radar, like any new technology in the hands of law enforcement, carries with it strong arguments both pro and con. That suggests that the people of Michigan ought to give it serious thought before the legislature considers adopting it.