Thinking About Police Traffic Cameras (83 cents)

Once, to be cited for a traffic violation, the police officer had to see you and make a visual assessment.  Then, they began to use radar guns, although they still had to be close by to operate them.  (I never paid attention to those signs that said that speed limits were being enforced by radar from planes; I always put this into the same category as a “Warning: Rabid Bengal Tiger” sign on an unfriendly looking front door.)

Now, in the abstract, since I always wanted to consider the police as my friends, I supported their activity chasing down traffic violators, although I must admit that, when it came to their enforcement of the “rules” against me, I always felt that they were in the wrong, and I the right.  For example, when that nasty policewomen said that I had failed to stop at the some sign on Fessenden  and 39th Street, NW both I and my passenger wife thought she was wrong.  We tried to discuss with her in a friendly manner (by her response, I figured we were lucky not to be hauled in for resisting arrest; when I asked her if she had photographed the infraction, she simply glared at me, not bothering to even attempt a verbal response), but certainly didn’t succeed.  Of course, we appealed and dutifully appeared at the municipal court house for our (ha! ha!) hearing.  The (ha! ha!) judge started by telling us that the government had the burden of proof, and that both we and the police officer could testify.  We testified first, stating that I had stopped at the stop sign (and that we were the victim of a speed trap) since the officer was parked on 39th Street, behind a bush, facing the wrong war, just to be able to claim that people were running the light so she could make some sort of quote, either as directed by her superiors or on her own initiative. The officer then testified, but her entire testimony was reading off the ticket she gave us.  She couldn’t remember anything outside of what she had written down. 

With that, you would think that the case would have been dismissed, since the government had the burden of proof, the government testimony was limited to reading the ticket, and we had two people testifying the opposite.  You would be wrong.  The government case was up held by the (ha! ha!) judge, and we were told we could appeal further.  Of course, to appeal further in the District of Columbia, you need to deposit both the amount of the fine and the amount of court costs with the court and wait for a few centuries until your case could be calendared.  Obviously, it was easier just to say the hell with it.

It reminded me of my other ticket for a moving traffic violation, which occurred about 40 years earlier when I was relatively new to Washington, living in Foggy Bottom, and I went to visit an old friend who lived in Silver Spring for the first time.  I was given driving instructions to go out Connecticut Avenue, turn right onto Military Road (where I drove by a house that I did not know I would one day own) and turn left on Georgia Avenue (where a new Walmart just opened this week on the site of what used to be a Chevrolet dealership).  Sounds simple and indeed the first two legs of the journey were.  But the intersection of Georgia and Military, as you may know, is a complicated one.  As you drive east on Military and approach Georgia, there is no sign to tell you you are approaching Georgia until you are virtually at the intersection.  But the complication arises because Military does not just cross Georgia; rather, you must jog to the right and then take a quick left to keep going in the same direction (in fact, you are then no longer on Military, but on Missouri, but that’s just a detail).  As you near the intersection, the two eastbound lanes become three and you see a sign, not identifying Georgia, but telling you that the two left lines are going to jog to the right, and the left line is for a left turn on the still unnamed street.  In fact, to confuse you a bit more, Colorado Avenue comes into Military at an angle, just before you hit the intersection with the jog, so when you see a street sign, it says Colorado, and your vision of any sign saying Georgia is blocked until you are about 40 feet from the intersection. 

On this fateful day, I edged forward beyond the Colorado intersection, preparing for the jog, when I saw that the street I would be crossing was Georgia.  I then edged into the left turn lane and turned, only to be sirened down by a police car telling me I had made an illegal left turn because I waited too long to get into the turning lane.

Again, conversation was not going to carry the day, and I appeared before the (ha! ha!) judge, carefully explained the interesection and my careful driving and he said “Well, it sounds like you don’t know how to read DC traffic signs.”  What????  Once again, big government got me.

But all this is a digression.  My main point was to be about these newfangled traffic cameras sprouting up all over.  We have all been caught once or twice (or more), I think, and there is no one to argue.  To say that it is really safe to drive at 35 mph on Connecticut Avenue is not relevant, and to argue that you weren’t driving 35 mph is impossible.  So, for those in the know, the traffic is slowed down, and for those new to the neighborhood, too bad.  It’s something that, for the most part, we can live with (except for the nerve racking flashes of light that pop up when you don’t expect it).  For the most part (i.e., unless you are caught exceeding the posted speed by 5 mph).

But now things are being ratcheted up one more time.  The District has announced that it is putting in additional cameras, and that these will be more sophisticated.  They will not only be able to gauge your speed, but that they will be able to do other things.  They will be able to see if you stopped at the stop sign.  They will be able to see if you gave pedestrians the right of way.  To name just two things.

Woah!  What does it mean to stop fully at a stop sign?  Does that mean that you must have all forward movement stopped?  If so, 95% of drivers (all those with automatic transmission) will be guilty of a violation.  Or does it mean you have to slow down to, say, 5 mph, or 3 mph or what?  And how will this information be provided to us drivers?  As to giving the right of way to pedestrians, this is even harder, I would think, for a camera to judge.  If there is a cross walk, you are supposed to stop and let people cross.  But sometimes, a pedestrian is standing at a cross walk and doesn’t want to cross, or doesn’t want to cross yet, or waves you on, etc., etc.  How is a camera going to judge that?

I see trouble ahead.  I see innocent drivers forced to pay high fines, waste their time at (ha! ha!) hearings, and suffer anxiety attacks based on impossible camera calibrations. What to do?  I guess just hunker down and wait for driverless cars to take over the roads.  Then we will have good sport – unmanned cameras vs. unmanned cars.  I can hardly wait.



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