Speed Limit Enforcement

A group project that I am working on is looking at the costs and benefits of using a radar system to enforce speed limits. The basic idea is that it will calculate speeds and then take a picture of your license plate (and face) to be able to know who to fine if you are caught over the speed limit. Its a pretty efficient system, but ever since its introduction in the U.S. in the 1980’s it has made most motorists furious. This begs the question: why the hate?

At first the answer might seem to be a simple one. No one wants to go out to the mailbox to find a large fine from the Department of Transportation. But as long as we agree that we should enforce speed limit laws in some fashion, the relevant question is whether or not automatic enforcement mechanisms are better than relying on police officers to give out tickets. The main difference between the two seems to be discrimination, which I use in the broad sense of being able to make value judgments. With the radar and camera system, fines are determined automatically by your speed and number of previous offenses. Cops, on the other hand, have the choice of what cars to pull over and whether or not to let drivers get off with a warning or perhaps reduce the fine.

One reason given against the automated system is that it entails privacy concerns. Not only do I believe these are overblown, I think they pale in comparison to the broad power and authority that we give to police. Both the camera operators and the police are public employees, and there seems a lot more potential for abuse with a gun. With this in mind, I think the real reason why people don’t like the camera systems is that they are impartial. Police can choose to target cars with out of state plates, or they can give more tickets (or more expensive ones) to different age, gender or ethnic groups. None of this is possible with the camera system, but with police tickets can be concentrated among groups that don’t have much of a say in local politics. So here’s an interesting paper idea: controlling for group-specific accident rates and car ownership/use, see if voter turnout by group can accurately predict the likelihood of receiving a ticket from the police. My guess is that this effect would be especially strong among out of state drivers, followed by ethnic minorities and younger drivers.

-dp

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~ by danplechaty on February 4, 2010.

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