The cameras! They’re everywhere!
There are a lot of misconceptions about traffic cameras, their purpose, their use, and why they are in so many areas now. Many people understandably believe that traffic cameras are part of a sinister conspiracy to spy on Americans. With recent revelations of NSA spying and the sudden, exponential growth of the surveillance state and surveillance industry, this is a valid concern.
When an intersection near my apartment was improved, my neighbors freaked out because of the traffic cameras being installed. Since they knew I was in school majoring in Civil Engineering, they wanted me to fight this horrible travesty! Now!!! But before the improvements, I had witnessed no less than three pedestrians get hit by cars at that intersection. The sound of a car slamming into a person and the sight of someone lying on the pavement right outside my living room window, and then me having to call 911, not one but three times, is something I won't soon forget. Since the intersection was improved, the crosswalk carnage has stopped. No pedestrians have been hit there since the improvements, and a big part of that is better, smarter traffic flow because of traffic cameras.
In reality, traffic cameras and related systems are recommended and designed by well-meaning engineers who are simply using the best, cheapest, and newest technology available to monitor dangerous intersections and reduce fatalities, injuries, and damage, as well as increasing the capacity and flow of existing roads for much less than the cost of adding lanes or other physical infrastructure improvements.
In English, this means that traffic cameras are used for the primary purpose of making intersections safer and reducing traffic gridlock. While any technology can be abused, traffic cameras are not meant to be an extension of the all-seeing eye of Big Brother. Traffic cameras are a new technology that works better and is cheaper than existing technology. New, cheap, and better are not a combination one encounters often in civil engineering, hence the rapid expansion of traffic cameras.
Traffic cameras keep you safer on the way to work and help keep you from getting stuck in traffic jams, and make it safer for your kids to cross the street. And most of them aren't high res enough to see your license plate number. These cameras are built to count cars and trucks, not to catch you speeding and fine you big bucks.
Let me start below the orange cloverleaf interchange by debunking many of the myths and fears about traffic cameras.
Myth #1: These traffic cameras are everywhere so they can send me tickets in the mail!
To debunk this myth, we have to talk about what traffic cameras are NOT used for.
Traffic cameras are NOT the same cameras that send you -surprise- tickets in the mail.
The vast majority of traffic cameras you see are NOT the ones that greedy municipalities use to snap pictures of license plates of people that run red lights and go 5 miles over the speed limit. I’ll refer to those as red-light cameras and speed cameras, or collectively as enforcement cameras. These types of cameras are often presented as being installed for public safety, but the primary driver is money. Usually, operation of speed and red-light cameras are outsourced to a private company who gets a kickback from the fines generated by these cameras.
Laws about enforcement cameras differ from state to state, but at least in Ohio, enforcement cameras have to be marked by signs that say “Photo Enforcement”. For example, in Cleveland, enforcement cameras are placed near the Cleveland Clinic, so drivers who are visiting sick loved ones and might not have red-light cameras as the first thing on their mind are zapped with costly fines. It’s a blatant cash grab falsely billed to be in the name of ‘safety’. In Akron they use mobile enforcement cameras, set up by plain white vans that weren’t there the day before to fleece unsuspecting motorists who drive by. They do this in school zones so they can say “it’s for the kids”. Really it’s for the Benjamins.
Know your city’s policy about enforcement cameras and you won’t get caught off guard by this moneymaking scheme. The locations of or policies regarding enforcement cameras are usually public info and can usually be found with a simple Internet search, since installation of enforcement cameras usually make the local news and is usually met with some public resistance. That normal, unmarked traffic camera you’re worried about is most likely NOT an enforcement camera. They are two completely different things.
Normal traffic cameras are NOT enforcement cameras. Most traffic camera footage I’ve seen is relatively low resolution, to the point where they are not even capable of reading license plates. That’s not how they’re designed. High-res cameras would be unnecessarily expensive, and civil engineers always go for low cost to avoid losing project bids and confrontations from angry taxpayers complaining about government "waste".
Myth #2: Traffic Cameras are part of a scheme to spy on Americans’ every move.
To debunk this myth, we have to talk about traffic cameras ARE used for.
Traffic Cameras are used to detect cars at traffic signals, to know when the best time is to change the signal from red to green.
Before traffic cameras, the prevailing technology to detect cars at intersections was detector loops embedded in the pavement at intersections. We’ve all seen the signs that said “stop here to actuate signal”, those are detector loops. They are like metal detectors that detect cars because the movement of big, metal cars induces a current in wire loops in the pavement. Detector loops are NOT “pressure plates” that sense weight as many believe. So if you see teenagers jumping up and down at a McDonald’s drive-thru to set it off, they’re doing it wrong. Unless they’re androids made of metal, it won’t work.
Detector loops come with an array of problems:
-They are expensive to install. Installing them requires tearing up the pavement, installing the loop, and repaving that rectangle of road.
-If a driver stops too far from the detector loop, it won’t detect the car at all, and the driver may never get a green light.
-Most loops can’t detect motorcycles at all because they are too small to induce a current.
-Usually, loops can’t tell how many cars are at an intersection, just that there is one there. They can’t tell a car from a tractor-trailer either.
Thanks to recent advances in technology, traffic cameras can do the job of detecting cars much better than loops, at a lower cost, and are installed without physically tearing up pavement. Cameras are “smarter” than “dumb” detector loops. They have a birds-eye view of the whole intersection, and can see every car waiting at the red light. It can tell how many cars are in the queue, how many are in the left turn lane, how long they’ve been waiting there, and it can tell a car from a tractor-trailer, and see motorcycles that were invisible to the dumb loops. It can count the number of cars that zip by at the green light too, and predict how long the queue will be on that street when the signal changes.
Though the cameras use images to detect cars, it sees them simply as data that is fed to a computer. Several intersections, and even whole road systems in whole cities can be linked together, and intersections synched up and optimized so that the whole system works together for the highest possible capacity.
We’ve all drove on roads where it seems that every light is red and getting anywhere takes forever. Traffic cameras can prevent this by helping intersections work smoothly together, reducing travel times. All this data can be tracked by engineers, and the system tweaked and optimized for maximum efficiency.
That’s what traffic cameras are for. Not for spying on people, but as a better way to detect cars. They are better than pavement loops in every way. The only problem is that traffic cameras are—cameras, and can be abused as such. So what happens to all that footage, all that video of random cars zooming through intersections?
It’s complicated in a country where we have a patchwork of laws in 50 states and thousands of cities, towns, and counties. But generally, there are laws restricting the use of traffic cameras for enforcement. Generally, they can’t and won’t use them just to give you a ticket for speeding or running a red light. They aren’t high enough resolution to tell whether that guy walking by is smoking a cigarette or a joint. Their primary purpose is not for catching criminals or entrapping or blackmailing innocent people or for keeping a huge file on your daily routine. Despite recent revelations on NSA spying on phone calls and emails, there is NO database of which cars go through what intersections on a day-to-day basis based on traffic camera images or data. Traffic data collected from cameras is general data not tied to specific cars or people.
When does law enforcement look through traffic camera footage to get evidence? That varies a lot from state to state and city to city, and ranges from never, to only for very serious crimes, to maybe some less serious crimes. But it’s in the best interest of the engineers that rely on traffic camera technology that the public not see them as a threat to their privacy and security, so there are always limits on the use of traffic cameras to give evidence to police.
Can traffic cameras be abused for this purpose? Sure! Any technology can be abused. Can they be used rightly by police? Maybe. Although I don’t have any direct evidence, it stands to reason that traffic camera footage was part of the barrage of images used to identify the Tsarnaev brothers in the Boston bombings. So the use of traffic cameras for enforcement and the pros and cons of that are up for debate, and should be debated.
But the purpose of traffic cameras is not to snoop in the lives of Americans. Traffic cameras reduce traffic crashes and save lives at dangerous intersections. They increase traffic flow and help you get to work easier. Traffic cameras can be abused, just like any technological advance. But overall, they improve the lives of people in this country that rely on cars and public roads to get from point A and point B. Fearing technology for its own sake without understanding its benefits is just as dangerous as allowing it to be abused with reckless abandon.