Speeding Ticket Camera

After putting my kids to bed last night, I looked at Gregg Easterbrook’s Tuesday Morning Quarterback before going to bed. Easterbrook writes on a lot of different topics such as human happiness (an interesting-sounding book I’ve never read), global warming, science, space, theology, and so forth.  So his column during the NFL season is full of digressions about topics unrelated to football.
Yesterday, he tackled speed cameras in Montgomery County, Maryland where he lives. I rarely quote lengthy text but his column is so long it is hard to put your finger on the text:

Speeding Cameras — The New Bridge Trolls? Automated ticket cameras continue to proliferate; on Oct. 1, they became legal throughout Maryland, my state. Since speeding and light-running are legitimate problems, the cameras are good ideas in school zones. Studies show they slow traffic, and my personal experience (Montgomery County in Maryland has had speed cameras since 2005) is that the devices sharply reduce speeding wherever their locations become known. The obvious question is whether the real purpose of automated ticket cameras is safety or to generate money for local governments to lavish upon themselves.

They’re from the government, and they’re here to help you. Consider the short timing of traffic lights. The federal guideline is a minimum of three seconds at yellow for lights in a 25 mph zone, and four seconds at yellow in a 35 mph zone. If the yellow is short-timed, the cameras will spit out more fines, including some to responsible drivers. Last winter the late, lamented Rocky Mountain News — a 149-year-old newspaper that failed at the peak of its quality — found, in one of its final exposes, that in the Colorado locations where automated red light cameras were being installed, yellows were being reset to two seconds, to increase revenue. To top it off, accidents rose at short-timed lights, because they caused drivers to suddenly slam on the brakes. After the Rocky’s article, the Colorado legislature enacted a three-second yellow minimum and declared there must be warning signs on approaches to a camera-ticket enforcement zone. The warnings will cost local jurisdictions income, but will slow traffic. And slowing down traffic is the whole point, right?

In Montgomery County, red-light and speeding cameras are sprouting like dandelions. Drivers in the county are reckless, so slowing them makes sense. Since the program started four years ago, I’ve gotten one ticket, for doing 36 mph in a school zone. Shame on me? The ticket was time-stamped 1:08 a.m. on a Sunday — I was coming home from picking up my youngest and his friends from a bar mitzvah party. Obviously the camera software knew it was the middle of a weekend night, yet had been set to issue school-hours fines 24/7. The purpose was to reach into drivers’ pockets.

Numbers from the Montgomery County ticket camera program recently came out. The county raked in $19 million in fiscal 2009; that’s the net, after paying a contractor a $16.25 commission on each ticket. Small wonder the contractor sets the cameras to ignore when school is out of session! In fiscal 2009, the machines issued about 775,000 automated tickets — 1.3 per licensed driver residing in the county — for a gross of $31 million and net to government of $19 million. But despite the camera contractor’s receiving $12 million in commissions in a year, our county executive just said he needs a $2.9 million annual budget increase “for administrative costs associated with the camera program.” So what is that $12 million payment to the contractor for?

Roadside trolls would be more cost-effective than ticket cameras whose revenue vanishes to mysterious administrative expenses.This is, if not corruption, then classic government mismanagement. First a contractor is hired, ostensibly so tax-funded administrative costs don’t increase. As soon as the program is locked into place, tax-funded administrative costs increase anyway. If the contractor gets a $12 million fee and the county still needs an extra $2.9 million for hazy “administrative costs,” that’s $15 million in overhead to collect $19 million in net revenue — 44 percent of the program is waste. Putting trolls by the side of the road would be more efficient! Any private enterprise this featherbedded would go out of business rapidly: Most likely the more entrenched the ticket camera programs become, the more overhead will grow. Ten years from now, my county may have an enormous white-columned building to house the Department of Appropriate Journey Management. It will be staffed with dozens of high-level personnel who can never be fired, and have titles like Senior Executive Assistant to the Chief of Staff for the Associate Deputy Director of Calibration. They will spend all their time filing grievances against each other, demanding disability pensions and penning memos about how desperately overworked and understaffed the division is.

Postscript: Montgomery County voters are upset that while ticket cameras are sprouting everywhere and services being cut, the county executive spent $65,000 building a private bathroom for his office. What struck me was a line buried in the story: “his security detail did not want him using the public restroom because walking to and from the facility could expose him to harm.” It’s dangerous to go to the bathroom at county headquarters? “His security detail” is the key absurdity. This is another example of even a low-echelon politician insisting on tax-funded bodyguards not for any valid purpose, but in order to make himself feel important. You do not need to be surrounded by bodyguards to attend a school board meeting. County executives are not the targets of international terrorists. Yet increasingly, average people are taxed so minor government functionaries can travel with bodyguards whose duty is to stroke the official’s ego.

I agree with much of Easterbrook’s logic here and I don’t think there is any question that politicians can and will look to traffic speed cameras as a vehicle to garner more revenue. The problem is no evidence provided that a 44% administrative cost is inordinate. It might be. But I have no clue. Are other jurisdictions around the country paying substantially less? Maybe this is a part of the cost of business to use this mechanism to prevent car accidents due to excessive speed.

Are local governments often inefficient? Sure. But there are lots of examples of that. The questions are whether traffic speed cameras are overly intrusive/Big Brother-ish and do they save lives? My answers are no and yes.

Easterbrook’s postscript about the security detail for the Montgomery County Chief Executive would be a great comedy if it were not so awful. Exactly how many county executive security breaches have there been in the last 20 years? Easterbrook has been sounding the alarm on this for years.

Why is no one paying attention? I think it is because small-town newspapers do not ask the hard questions and old big town media does not have the resources to flush these issues out, particularly in today’s economic climate for print media. I think the Internet and local blogs will eventually change the tolerance of local government excesses, like these ridiculous security details and other unnecessary perks. My only fear: these otherwise insane perks are a part of the thinking that leads good leaders to take the otherwise insane pay cut that comes for many with government service.

I used to have a link here to Gregg Easterbrook’s entire column but I guess they when they got rid of Easterbrook; they took down the page.

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