Why Traffic Cameras Are Immoral

(Please note: this post is just a bit on the tongue-in-cheek side.  Thank you.)

No one likes traffic cameras, of course, because they take everyone’s money.  City councils barely even pretend they are put out for safety reasons – they’re there to shore up leaky treasuries.  (UPDATE: Okay, sometimes they claim safety reasons – and then add more of them.)

The justification is that, well, if you’re speeding, you’re still breaking a law.  It may be cheap, or crass, or damn annoying, for “them” to try to milk us all for extra penalty cash, but lawbreaking is lawbreaking.  The cameras would seem to be morally defensible, even if you accept that morals and safety don’t really come into their being deployed.

Officer Short Shrift

I argue that’s not the case.  There are two reasons why traffic cameras – and other, similar methods of automated penalty-issuance – are essentially immoral or unethical.

The first reason is just this: the traffic cameras do not issue points on a driver’s license.  The cameras cannot conclusively identify the driver, so it would be legally indefensible to attribute the penalty to the driver; the car’s license plate, and thus the car’s registered owner, is responsible.

What does this mean?  This means that traffic cameras are not deterrents to speeding (or red light running): they’re price barriers for speeding.

If you’re rather wealthy, you can feel free to charge on through speed camera after speed camera with impunity. You probably won’t want to, because you probably don’t want to give all that money to the government for free, but if you’re running late for your two hundred-dollar massage appointment which may get cancelled if you don’t get there on time and you just know the parking spaces go fast as soon as 6:30 hits downtown, then you may just figure it a fine decision to absorb the puny 40 dollar fine and just charge on through.

And even if that unlikely and specific type of scenario doesn’t happen often, at the very least, a wealthy person can feel more generally free to speed when driving, taking their chances of passing by a mobile speed camera.  A poor person, on the other hand, had better learn, as more speed cameras appear around this great nation, to slow down constantly.  A single penalty could seriously harm someone below the poverty line if they get caught trying to zoom from day care to the laundromat to work.

Because, you see, without the human element involved, no license points can be given.  And license points are the great equalizer – a rich person can have their license revoked just as easily as a poor person, and suffer (almost) as much.  License points disincentivize speeding for everybody, equally.

So clearly, taking the points out of the equation is discriminatory!  It’s plutocracy on the highways!  Compliance with the law shouldn’t be for sale!  Rar!

The second objection is more philosophical, and also has to do with the lack of the human element.

Human judgment is the grandest of our faculties, and one of those Things that truly Separate Us From The Lower Creatures.  A typical human being can appraise a situation in a much subtler way than any present-day machine can even dream of doing.  Human beings can understand context.

Take two scenarios.  One, a young man is speeding down the highway.  A police officer stops him.  Upon approaching the window, the officer sees this man is very upset.  The young fellow attempts to explain some dramatic situation, but he’s nearly incoherent, he’s so upset.  The officer catches something about the kid losing his job and bills piling up, but that’s it.  The officer checks the kid’s record, finds out he’s got no recent offenses.  The officer decides he believes the kid.  He feels bad for him, and, using the judgment he’s acquired as a human being and an officer of the law over many years, he decides the kid deserves to be let off with a warning for this ticket.  He says, “slow down,” and the kid drives off, more slowly, and with a significant amount of money and hassle saved because there was a human being there to make a conclusion about his situation.

But if he’d passed a speed camera, he’d be s*** out of luck.  Just try explaining to the court that you should have your machine-issued ticket forgiven because you were “upset.”


This is the judge. Pass through and you will be found guilty or not guilty.

Story number two.  For this one, you’ll have to accept some science fiction.  Let’s follow the slippery slope down to technologies some folks have already started considering.  Perhaps better speed cameras that effectively track everyone on nearly any highway.  Or perhaps some sort of GPS tracker in a woman’s car that automatically penalizes her  for driving a certain amount over the speed limit – wherever she is, on any road.  (Thankfully, that one has been prevented – so far.  But bear with the hypothetical.)

The woman is on the highway, a little sleepy and trying to get home as soon as she can, warily driving 65 in a 55,  knowing that 70 is the threshold for the auto-penalizer.  Suddenly, a deer bounds onto the highway.  She has a split second to react; on her current course it will land right on her car.  She has a learned aversion to speeding, because she knows she’ll be penalized.  And it is just a deer, after all, not a death sentence; she habitually opts to hit the brakes to try to avoid it, instead of taking the perhaps more effective route of punching the accelerator to swerve past it (in the moment, it doesn’t matter that she would get out of the ticket – the ingrained habit is what affects her).  She hits the deer.  She isn’t injured, no, but there goes her car.  All because the machination of speed tickets had long since taught her to take some of her human judgment out of her driving decisions.  The numbers were enforced.

They were enforced, but they shouldn’t have been.  Because, you see, there’s something we all know which machines don’t:  Sometimes it is right to break the law.  And it is impossible to write laws so perfectly welded to their moral intent that they never need to broken in order to do the right thing.

These were wild and unlikely extrapolations, perhaps, but the basic idea remains: when you take the human being out of the application of law, you turn the law from a prism which provides clarity and direction into a laser that cuts right on through both good and bad mindlessly.  People throughout history have done their best to make laws as close to mechanical processes as possible, usually in the name of “fairness” or “strictness,” and it’s always ended in situations that no one actually thinks to be good and best.  So remember, lawmakers, when it comes to enforcement – don’t automate – humanate!


One comment

  1. […] Be Next!” Why Isn’t This Election A Four-Way Race? Vote By Your State: The Ideal Election Why Traffic Cameras Are Immoral Is There Nothing We […]

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