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Cameras vs. Carnage: Why the Controversy?

A Sport utility vehicle sped through a red light June 24 in southeast Washington, D.C., smashing into a car packed with children. A seven-year-old was killed, and his three siblings and grandmother were injured. Sad? Yes. But sadder still, this wasn't just a tragedy but a trend.

Zipping through reds is one of the main causes of death, injury, and vehicle damage on our roads today, and all evidence says the problem is growing worse.

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"Going faster on red" was once derided as characteristic of Latin American cultures. "I speed right through the reds," the apocryphal Mexican cab driver tells his white-knuckled American passenger, "but I always slow down at the greens because you never know." Yet if that was its origin, running red lights has come north with a vengeance that the "killer bees" were supposed to have had but didn't.

Many drivers seem to believe that if they so much as see a light turn red they have permission to go through it. In August 1997, the city of Fairfax, Va. set up a camera at a single intersection and found more than 2,300 motorists ran a red light at it in a three-week period.

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Department of Transportation (DOT) data show crashes at stop lights increased 15 percent from 1992 to 1996, with the number of fatal crashes up 19 percent. Running red lights causes about 250,000 accidents a year now, and almost 800 deaths. I personally have witnessed three accidents caused by red-light running, and in one case had to tend to the injured until the ambulance arrived.

But cameras have proved stunningly successful in preventing accidents and saving lives and limbs. A three-year, federally-supported program in 31 cities has reduced red-light crashes by more than 40 percent in some communities, according to the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration, a division of DOT. During the first six months, cameras were mounted at four San Francisco intersections, and there was a 42 percent drop in the number of drivers who ran red lights at them. After a year of use in Oxnard, Calif., red-light related accidents also fell by more than 40 percent and fatalities were eliminated during that period.

Signs warn that such cameras are ahead. Yet many motorists ignore both them and the red light. A couple of weeks later, they find a ticket in the mail, along with a photo of their license plate and sometimes, if the camera is set up to take two shots, one of their face.

It's simple and effective, yet only a few cities in just 10 states use them. Why? Because to some people they're the worst thing to come along since orange circus peanuts.

Recently California's experimental program just barely survived the chopping block, with opponents in the state Assembly invoking George Orwell's "1984" and even Nazi Germany.

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The talk of "1984" is nonsense, as anybody who's read the book knows. Orwell's purpose wasn't to attack any kind of public surveillance but to attack totalitarian government and show how it could be facilitated with then-futuristic technology.

The whole point of cameras in "1984" is that they penetrated everywhere at all times. In stark contrast, the cameras at intersections snap only when the law is violated - a law that everyone agrees is a good one, even if so many of us ignore it. Somehow the slogan "Big Brother is Watching You Illegally Speed through a Traffic Signal" seems to lack punch.

Further, the cameras in 1984 had humans behind them who made arbitrary judgments on people's behavior. In contrast, the intersection cameras remove arbitrariness. Ask any driver of a flashy sports car if he would rather be subject to the impartiality of a camera or the whims of a police officer.

Yet somehow these cameras are harbingers of an Orwellian state or the beginning of the Fourth Reich.

Most Americans reject such silliness.

A recent Harris poll showed that two-thirds of Americans surveyed favored the cameras. Two previous Insurance Institute for Highway Safety surveys found similar results.

Perhaps because they're devices and not people, intersection cameras may be one of the few things government does that really works. The reason some of us dislike them isn't because they're an invasion of privacy. Rather they invade our "right" to arrive somewhere a few minutes earlier - even if that means possibly taking away someone else's right to life.

* Michael Fumento is a Washington, D.C.-based health and science writer who specializes in risk issues. His article "Road Rage Versus Reality" appears in the August issue of The Atlantic Monthly.

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