09 March 2011

Speed Cameras Can be Fun

I’m not a fan of speed cameras, but I am resigned to the fact that they will be coming.  Some have stated speed cameras are a tax and certain Ford Mustang drivers have a lot to say about the subject.  For a great analysis of driver behavior, I strongly suggest checking out Sarah’s blog on the subject.  Behind all the discussion, I have been impressed by the approach the Ulman Administration has taken on this subject.  Rather that jumping into deployment, the administration conducted studies to quantify the problem.  Good idea to have the data to back your decision.  Personally, I would like to see the details broken down by school (and time of day), but the fact that 66% of drivers are speeding in school zones and nearly one-in-five motorists exceeded the speed limit by more than 12 mph, indicates a real problem.  The administration has also indicated as slow approach to deployment, using two cameras next year.  Contrasted with Baltimore County’s recent decision to expand their program, two cameras appears to be a measured first step.

Now let me share with you my personal experience, because, you see, I know speed cameras.  My place of employment is in College Park, Maryland; which is firmly ensconced with the bounds of Prince George’s County, Maryland.  The PGCo government started using speed cameras earlier this year.

speed camera2

What you see above is not the unlikely offspring of Number Five of the movie Short Circuit  and an Ingorsoll-Rand portable air compressor, it is a speed camera (although on some mornings, it does look self-aware).  This particular camera is located on the southbound side of U.S 1, a few hundred feet north of Greenbelt Road (MD-193).

This camera and a similar installation on Metzerott Road have been the subject of much discussion in my office building.  Few people were given notice that the cameras were active and the initial reaction was mild ire.  The protestations, the animated hand-waving about big brother and the general feeling of being coldly judged by technology all had their actors and places.  Over time, behaviors have changed and various levels of acceptance has grown.  From the admonition of fellow employees “watch your speed when you get out on Route 1, you know they’re watching,” to violators willingly posting tickets received on their cube wall or office door.  They are badges of dishonor proudly displayed to demonstrate “yes, I am human, I made a mistake.”

I provide this as background because if the speed cameras are installed, many people in Howard County can expect a similar reaction.

But it Doesn’t Have to Be This Way

Now let me be clear and say that I don’t like speed cameras; but I do like serendipity, I like innovative thinking, and I like (although cliché) win-win outcomes.  Some of you hipster savvy readers may be acquainted with The Fun Theory an initiative by Volkswagen.  A few more of you out in Compass Nation may not know Fun Theory by its name, but are still familiar with their award winners.


Late in 2010, just as some of the counties in the region began researching speed camera sites, the Fun Theory announced an award winner that involved speed cameras.  The theory at play here is to reward good behavior rather than only punishing bad behavior.  The New York Times “Wheels” blog has a pretty good post on the subject.


As shown above, rather than taking a photo of only those exceeding the speed limit, the speed camera takes a photo of every car that passes by.  Those who speed still get a speeding ticket and fine; however, the drivers who pass the camera and obey the speed limit have their picture taken and are automatically entered into lottery.  Each (you pick ‘em, week, month, etc) a drawing is held for those entered in the lottery and the winner is awarded a portion of the fines issued by that particular speed camera.

The folks at Fun Theory tested this on a street in Stockholm, Sweden with positive results:


Transforming theory into practice isn’t always a smooth process.  I can already see two issues that may have to be resolved before this kind of innovative thinking can be deployed in Howard County.  First, I believe the maximum fine that is allowed by law is $40.  This apparently covers the cost of operating the cameras and does not provide for much of a lottery prize.  Legislation may have to be enacted to raise the upper limit on the fine to make the lottery an alluring proposition.  I would think $60 vs. $40.

Secondly, because of the chance for monetary gain, this type of arrangement might have the unintended consequence of increasing traffic near schools.  I believe some study should be performed to look at this possibility.  At its worst, the increased traffic would be presumably moving at the speed limit in an attempt to gain entrance into the lottery.

Although the presentations from Fun Theory and my discussion above are pretty light in theme, I believe the speed camera lottery idea should be given serious consideration.  By rewarding good behavior the system holds the promise of greater compliance with the posted speed limits and shifts the attitude of the general public from an onerous infraction to a possible gain for doing what you were supposed to do anyway.  If PGCo had adopted this idea, the discussion around my office would have been very different.  I hope the leaders in Howard County will give this serious consideration.

3 comments:

Mediaprophet said...

I know people learn to slow down for speed cameras, but don't they just speed up after the camera? Yes, you can prove that people's average speed /at the camera/ reduced by xyz percent... But what is the average speed /after/ the camera? I suspect it increases as people start to learn where the cameras are.

Bill said...

You sir, are a maniac. And good luck in your race for the WLVB!

Greg said...

Hmm...some name-calling when you dont agree with a differing point. Interesting readers. Anyway, it is apparent that critical analysis has gone away and instead silly comparisons to lottery and pie-in-the sky theories fog the issue to the readers. Many jurisdictions are seeing the futility of these cameras in high-speed control. Like the prior poster said, its been proven over and over that one slows and speeds up and this is just a revenue collector for the companies and states. ACLU issues abound as its a beginning of erosion of privacy -soon you will start policing peoples' minds? HO-CO loses big on this one. Maybe not apparent to sheeple, but to the aware ones.
Again, quit dumbing down issues and face the reality and obstructions of what you write about.