OP-ED: Are We Ready for Automated Traffic Enforcement?


The following was submitted by State Sen. Will Brownsberger

Automated enforcement of speed limits and red lights could substantially reduce accidents. So far, we have not been willing to use the new technology in Massachusetts. To improve safety, I hope we can build support to experiment with automated enforcement in a thoughtful and transparent way.

The technology to recognize license plates is now quite reliable. The barriers to using plate readers for enforcement of basic traffic laws are not technological.

Nor are the barriers financial. Appropriately placed automated enforcement tools could easily pay for themselves.

The barriers are legal and political. Implementation of automated enforcement requires state legislation to define a new procedure for attaching fines to violations. The legal problem is that, in the absence of an officer pulling someone over, it is impossible to know who was driving the vehicle. So, we would have to hold the vehicle owner responsible, but there is no currently mechanism to do that for moving violations.

The necessary legislative action has not been forthcoming. The issue has been kicking around the legislature for a decade.

Most of us are accustomed to making personal decisions about whether or not we can or should attempt to get away with a close push on a red light or a speed five or ten miles per hour above the speed limit. The fact is that police resources are very limited and millions of traffic violations go undetected or ignored every day on the roads of the Commonwealth.

Many of the laws we have in place are not consistent with driver behavior and the lack of enforcement is what keeps people from rebelling. For example, the new 25 mph limit in densely settled areas is slower than most drivers tend to go on many urban roads. I support the lower limit because the safety benefits of lower speeds are huge – accidents are less frequent and less severe. But I’m conscious that on many urban roads, most drivers will continue to go 40.

If municipalities had the authority to implement automated enforcement, there is a concern that they might use it to create revenue-producing speed traps, or through a clumsy roll-out end up issuing tickets to thousands of people, provoking a backlash (as recently occurred in Providence).

In addition to the legitimate reservations that many have about over-enforcement, privacy advocates are concerned about the expansion of cameras and the accumulation of data about the movement of drivers. This is indeed a legitimate concern, but it is one that can be addressed by clear rules and automatic deletion of  records not needed for the prosecution of particular violations.

People concerned about over-enforcement and the “big brother” accumulation of data often also raise questions about how effective the tools are in changing behavior. In my mind, the effectiveness depends on practical decisions made in the roll-out. Where are the cameras placed? To what extent do drivers have advance warning? It seems beyond reasonable dispute that a good implementation with fair enforcement goals could change behavior in positive ways.

I do intend to continue to pursue the issue of automated enforcement, but I recognize that it needs a broad discussion and we cannot do it without broad popular support. Your thoughts much appreciated. I would especially appreciate thoughts on how to target automated enforcement and how to make it work fairly.

I’ve posted a longer version of this essay with some resources at willbrownsberger.com and it has generated a lot of discussion. I would welcome your additional comments there, or at William.brownsberger@masenate.gov or 617-722-1280.

(Will Brownsberger represents the 2nd Suffolk and Middlesex Senate District, which includes Watertown, Belmont and parts of Boston)

8 thoughts on “OP-ED: Are We Ready for Automated Traffic Enforcement?

  1. Not only is this potential, Big Brother and privacy issue. It is also the first step for reducing Police Officer jobs.

  2. By all means, let’s give people a ticket for using their discretion as to whether it’s safer to drive 25 mph or to keep to the pace of traffic. Obviously, we should slam on the brakes and get rear-ended rather than drive across while the light is yellow. Clearly rigid enforcement of the rules in all circumstances and weather conditions is the highest form of safety. I really hope the rest of the legislature has a lick of common sense.

    • I think that Will is not promoting the use of automated enforcement, but rather laying out the issues and asking for input.

  3. Let’s be clear… This is about revenue enhancement and not about public safety.
    There is no due process…. there is no human judgement involved, whereby a police officer can assess if the person just ought to get a warning. And it’s just more Big Brother.

    Moreover, it’s another way to stick it to motorists, who are already paying fees, tolls, meters, excise tax, gas tax, etc…. much of which to subsidize those that take public transportation, that ought to be paying for their own damn transportation and not getting a subsidy from those that don’t use it. We certainly don’t get subsidies for the tolls we have to pay.

    So you can try to wrap this in a mantle of public safety. But we can see through it. It’s about raising revenues, for a State that SPENDING PROBLEMS, not a revenue problem.

    • Oh John, what do you have against public transit? Do you really think that the roads are not subsidized to a greater extent than transit? You are making a very misleading argument.

      Though I do not favor traffic cams because of their surveillance potential, I have one question for you: Do you always obey the speed limit?

  4. Basically, Mr. Brownberger believes that traffic cops should have their discretion taken away from them. I would ask him whether there are any circumstances that would merit a warning. Because his proposed system is either violation or not violation. If he is in favor of purchasing cameras to do traffic cops jobs for them, is he in favor of firing police officers? Finally, if he is right that these “crimes” are under-enforced, he’s not accounted for how suddenly enforcing them will choke the system, leading to additional costs and delays in mailings, appeals, and courts.

  5. I have many issues with automated enforcement, mostly of the “Big Brother” varietyHuman enforcement, with human contact is preferable as long as it is fair and not driven by revenue. Mixing enforcement with the need for revenue undermines public confidence in the fairness of the system.

    On the other hand, in my neighborhood, often driver behavior is out of control. Speed limits are not consistently enforced, especially on side streets that are used as cut throughs to avoid major thoroughfares.

    But enforcement should be a face to face human encounter and police should use the opportunity to remind the public of the destructive potential of the vehicles they drive.

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