… and among these unalienable rights are life, liberty and driving as fast as we damn well please.
Thus, Mayor Rahm Emanuel's plans to install cameras on some city streets to nail speeders has provoked bellyaching by drivers who claim some sort of right to race past schools and parks.
I suppose if you pinned them down they wouldn't actually claim the right to break the law by driving at dangerous speeds — that would be too lunatic, even for them. But they apparently think they have the right not to be caught. Their logic would be amusing if it weren't so perilous.
The opposition to the idea wouldn't be so bad if it were limited just to moronic speeders. It also has drawn together some strange bedfellows.
Jim Tobin, the usually rational voice of Taxpayers United of America, blasted the idea for not having anything to do with protecting schoolchildren. Rather the cameras are being imposed to "protect and bolster the lavish, gold-plated pensions of retired city government employees," he said in a press release. The reasoning goes: Chicago is so deep in hock to the pension funds of municipal employees that Emanuel is desperately looking for any source of new funds, even unreasonable ones.
From the other side of the political spectrum, the Public Interest Research Group warns of the threat of "the growing trend among cities to outsource traffic enforcement to red-light and speed camera vendors." It asserts that "… issues of accuracy, privacy and due process are taking a back seat to the profit motive."
If a cash-strapped city is looking for a way to raise money, I can't think of a better way than tapping lawbreakers. Emanuel and other public officials often try to convince the public that the cameras are not designed to raise money, an effort that is greeted with skepticism and guffaws. I don't know why they bother; the more cash they raise from pinheaded speeders and red-right runners the better for everyone, I say. All the arguments about how cameras infringe on a motorist's privacy are laughable; the streets are public ways and traffic scofflaws have no more right to be free of camera surveillance than they have to be free of cops hiding in "speed traps."
Here my attention will be directed toward studies that claim speed and red-light cameras are actually more dangerous than motorists running red lights or racing through neighborhoods. There will be yapping about conspiracies to shorten yellow caution lights to jack up income from fines, and so forth.
For the record, studies abound on both sides of the issue. I'll cite a recent, independent one that Maryland requires of towns that install speed cameras and other "automated traffic enforcement systems," such a red-light cameras.
The study, by Baltimore-based The Traffic Group, found the cameras led to reductions — sometimes dramatic — in speed and accidents in school zones in four suburban municipalities. Fewer accidents and as much as a 900 percent increase in speed-limit compliance were noted.
But no study will convince speed lunatics of the obvious need in an orderly society for enforcement of traffic laws. Thus, some will shell out $500 for devices that detect police radar or laser detectors. Some speed lunatics spend uncounted hours creating and maintaining Internet sites that claim to divulge thousands of speed traps around the country.
They tend to gather in such virtual bughouses as the National Motorists Association. Its website proclaims: "We support higher speed limits, an end to speed traps, fairer traffic courts, and stopping the use of traffic tickets to generate revenue. We want red-light ticket cameras and photo speed enforcement off our streets, roads and highways. We oppose roadblocks, for any purpose."
They whine, "Drivers have rights too, including the right to privacy in our cars and trucks and the right to travel without being tracked and spied upon by our own government."
Spare us. This elevates an understandable annoyance with overly aggressive traffic enforcement to the level of a fetish. This seeks to let paranoia drive public policy. This is exactly the kind of radical self-absorption that is helping America become the mess it is today.
This column also appeared in the Chicago Tribune.