You may have been driving recently and spotted a machine by the side of the road, with a read-out that told you what speed you were traveling. This machine was equipped with a radar system, designed to check if you were exceeding the speed limit and optionally, issue a citation. Some machines merely tell you your speed as a reminder - others will actually take the place of a police officer and cite you for going too fast.
Police departments have realized that they can't catch all traffic violators. Fine - so they are now recruiting machines to do their work for them. Enter red light cameras and photo radar.
A red light camera is simple enough. Departments install a camera system at busy intersections. When a driver enters the intersection at a red light, the system snaps a picture of their car (including license plate), and the vehicle's owner receives a citation in the mail, several days or weeks later. The problem is that red light cameras are an investment in revenue, not safety. There is no safety benefit to red light cameras. After all, what is a camera going to do to prevent an accident at an intersection? How is the camera going to apprehend a fugitive running a green light at 100 MPH?
Red light violations can be reduced through a simple and inexpensive practice: Increasing the time that a yellow light is displayed. When Fairfax County, Virginia increased yellow light time by 1.5 seconds at an intersection with a camera, violations were reduced by 96%. Red light violations were almost eliminated by this simple measure: they went from "an average daily rate of 52.1 per day before the yellow time increase to just 2 per day afterwards."5
Photo radar is also simple. It's just a machine doing a job that would ordinarily be done by a police officer, handing out speeding tickets. The difference is that the officer has been trained to operate the radar gun, is able to use common sense, and is able to respond to more pressing violations than a speeder. Photo radar has been proven ineffective on multi-lane highways, due to its inability to single out which driver was actually clocked. Radar, the earliest speed measurement technology, is also fallible. Radar guns must be calibrated regularly, and even when properly used they can generate false readings.
Photo radar is also not profitable if speed limits are set to a reasonable speed, that most drivers operate at. Units end up being placed in the most heavily traveled roads where limits are under-posted. They end up being counter-productive: given the choice, a community will continue to receive revenue from a machine rather than fix the actual problem, under-posting of speed limits.
In the case of both red light cameras and photo radar, it is clear that proper engineering is preferable to exploiting drivers for the purpose of generating revenue.
The Laser Problem
One Sunday in November, 2000, I was driving back to my home in Massachusetts from my parents' house in New York. It was a beautiful, clear day, around noontime. I was driving on a stretch of six lane highway called I-684, where the speed limit is an inexplicable 55 miles per hour. Traffic was very sparse - I had the left lane all to myself.
Then I saw them. Two New York State Troopers came into view, parked in the median as I cleared a hill. When you get pulled over for speeding, you don't wonder whether they clocked you or not. There's this intuitive feeling you get when you see them, and you know that you got nabbed. Trooper Pierce clocked me at 83 miles per hour in a 55 MPH zone, using a laser gun to measure my speed. I got pulled over, I got a summons, and I went on my way. They had a line of drivers pulled over, and were ticketing them one by one. It was like a slaughterhouse.
Although radar is still the king of speeding enforcement, the laser gun, or LIDAR (Light Detector and Ranging), is quickly gaining acceptance. The New York State Police, like many departments, use the LTI Marksman gun from Laser Technology, Inc. Police love laser enforcement because it's virtually impossible to evade. Almost immediately after radar was used to enforce speed limits, radar detectors were released. The current level of technology is such that a skilled driver with a very good radar detector is unlikely to ever receive a radar ticket.
Since a laser beam is "instant-on," there is no chance of detection while a laser gun isn't being used. The beam is also focused, dissipating to only a three foot radius over 1,000 feet. This reduces the chance of a detector picking up a stray beam or a ricochet. The officer simply uses a crosshairs to aim at the car he wants, and pulls the trigger. Currently, the best defenses against LIDAR can only reduce the range of detection. It cannot be jammed, and it is unlikely that you'll detect it in time to correct your speed.
LIDAR dates back to the early 1990s, when Kustom released their ProLaser, and Laser Technology, Inc. released its first unit, the 20-20. LTI almost didn't make it to release, though. The company, founded in 1985, was strapped for cash as it worked on its new LIDAR product. They needed money, and guess who brought cash to the table? The insurance companies.
GEICO, an insurance company that was initially founded for US government employees, stepped in with a $950,000 loan. The reasons are simple: Speeding tickets result in increased insurance premiums, and better enforcement technology results in more speeding tickets. GEICO's loan was the birth of what I like to call the Speeding Industry.
The Speeding Industry
Here's how it works: Insurance companies support communities and police departments through donations of LIDAR devices, money, and loans. Read through the minutes of your city council or town meeting, and don't be surprised when you see a line item that reads, "Approved: Donation of LTI Marksman 20-20 laser gun." Speeding fines go directly into the coffers of that town or city. For the government, it's a no-brainer. Accepting that donation is like accepting free money. The insurance companies, though, get the real benefit. In the United States, a single speeding violation can send your premium up by hundreds of dollars - and depending on your state, you could be paying that higher rate for years. As anyone who has been found guilty of a speeding violation will tell you, the fine is nothing compared to the ongoing insurance rate hike.
The final ingredient in this cottage industry is the cooperation of the public. After all, we're all participants (if somewhat unwitting) in this game - it couldn't continue without the implicit support of taxpayers and motorists. This is the reason we are led to believe, by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, police departments, and motor vehicle bureaus, that all traffic violations are dangerous.
How does this explain the existence of the speed trap, though? The speed trap, entrenched in our driving culture and the daily lives of police officers, is a practice designed for one purpose: Catching people who are exceeding the speed limit. There is something wrong with this goal. Shouldn't the goal of highway police be to catch unsafe drivers, not speeders? At some point speeders have been equated with unsafe drivers, and we are all suffering for it.
The IIHS will tell you that "Speed is a factor in 30 percent of all fatal crashes, killing an average of 1,000 Americans every month."1 If you didn't look carefully, you might think they were declaring a causal relationship between speed and fatal crashes - they're not. Incidentally, doesn't this statistic mean that 70 percent of fatal crashes don't involve speeding?
According to the Washington State Department of Transportation, the actual danger is when motorists are traveling at varying speeds. Research has not supported the claim that lower speed limits result in fewer accidents, but it has shown that if most drivers operate at the same speed, accidents will be reduced.2 You may be surprised to learn that there is a proven method for accomplishing the goal of similar speeds for most drivers, and it's called the "85th percentile speed."
The 85th Percentile
We must assume these four points2 when determining public policy on speeding:
Raising and lowering speed limits has not been shown to influence the speed that most drivers operate at. A reasonable basic speed rule should be based on a proven statistic: The speed limit should be set at the maximum speed that 85 out of 100 drivers travel at. At the 85th percentile speed, the differential between driving speeds is reduced, and consequently accidents are reduced.
- The majority of motorists drive in a safe and reasonable manner
- The normally careful and competent actions of a reasonable person should be considered to be legal
- Laws are established for the protection of the public and the regulation of unreasonable behavior of a few individuals
- Laws cannot be effectively enforced without the consent and voluntary compliance of the majority
Unfortunately, the goal of the Speeding Industry is not to reduce accidents. A study by the United States Department of Transportation3 showed that changes in speed limits barely caused drivers to change their average speed. An obvious finding was that raising the speed limit reduced violations, and lowering the speed limit raised violations. On average, the speed limits on the roads they measured were set at 45th percentile speeds - meaning, over half of drivers exceed the posted speed limit. A study by the Cato Institute4 found that since the repeal of the national 55 MPH speed limit in 1995, traffic fatalities have continued to decrease in frequency.
Most states claim to set speed limits at "safe and reasonable" speeds. Is it reasonable to turn more than half of all drivers into criminals? Is it safe to promote such disparity in traveling speeds by enforcing unrealistic speed limits?
Enforcement vs. Safety
I'd also like to bring up a point about roadblocks. Many departments have taken to screening drivers using mandatory checkpoints. Most frequently, checkpoints are used to combat seat belt violations and DWI. Checkpoints have been great for police departments. A 1995 Connecticut emphasis on roadblocks and enforcement was a success. There was a 33% increase in speeding tickets, a 51% increase in seat belt tickets, and a 22% increase in DWI arrests. Unfortunately, the biggest success was the rate of accidents: on highways that were targeted for enforcement, the rate of crashes rose by 66%.6
It should go without saying, but it doesn't. Roadblocks are an unconstitutional violation of 4th amendment rights in the United States. As usual, freedom is thrown out the window when the word safety is thrown around. Roadblocks are outlawed in some states, they are legal in others.
Oh, and if you're wondering what happened with my little laser ticket: I beat it. You see, the courts and police aren't interested in the small percentage of drivers who bother to fight tickets. Most people just mail the ticket in, and accept it as a "driving tax." It just isn't cost effective to battle every motorist in open court. If you fight your ticket, chances are it will be either reduced or thrown out. I beat mine on a technicality, which is your best bet for getting the ticket thrown out entirely. The most likely outcome is you will indicate to the prosecutor that you are interested in working something out. You'll bargain on a reduced sentence, the judge will ask if both parties agree, and your case will be closed.
The triangle of law enforcement, insurance, and local government has convinced us that they are operating in the best interests of safety for too long. In reality, they are not operating in your best interests, or the best interests of safety. They are only looking out for their own revenue stream, and if enough people realize this we can force them to do the right thing: Look out for our best interests.