Is this surveillance overkill?

This post is more than 2 years old.

A few weeks ago I noticed a few utility trucks working at an intersection I drive through quite often. I thought maybe it was related to the fiber optic push the city is making (way cool, super high speed acces, more info at LUSFiber.org), or perhaps red light cameras...

Click to enlarge:
Red Light Camera

As time went on though, and work continued, I realized it was definitely red light camera related. What surprised me, and soon shocked me, was how intensive the camera setup became. It got to a point where I couldn't count the total number of cameras at this one intersection.

Now, let me be clear on something. I'm pro-red light cameras. I'm pro-speed vans. Frankly the argument that they invade your privacy is bunk. Outside, on a public road, in a multi-ton car? No, that's not private. I do know there are concerns that private companies are running them, but in my mind, if it lets the cops focus more on violent criminals, and slows people down, I'm all for it.

But I have to say - when I drive through this intersection now I feel like I'm in a prison, or in the middle of 1984. It's just... awe-inspiring the amount of camera "stalks" that are now set up. Check it out (and click to enlarge):

Stalks

Stalks

Stalks

Stalks

Stalks

Normal

More, more, more

Last...

The street in question does suffer from speeder, but more so about 2 blocks down. This area is relatively stable as far as I know. In all my time on the road I've yet to see one accident. So what do folks think? Have you ever seen an intersection like this in your town? Is it overkill?

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About Raymond Camden

Raymond is a senior developer evangelist for Adobe. He focuses on document services, JavaScript, and enterprise cat demos. If you like this article, please consider visiting my Amazon Wishlist or donating via PayPal to show your support. You can even buy me a coffee!

Lafayette, LA https://www.raymondcamden.com

Archived Comments

Comment 1 by Sid Wing posted on 5/22/2009 at 9:53 PM

Man - that is just INSANE! We've got some seriously congested high-speed/high-traffic intersections here in Huntsville and NEVER have I seen anywhere NEAR that many red-light/speed monitoring cameras. That is just WACKED!

Comment 2 by Sean Corfield posted on 5/22/2009 at 9:58 PM

Go to England where every town has CCTV and most cities have red light cameras and there are speed cameras everywhere. The M25 (London Orbital) has a system where it tracks license plates from camera to camera so it can measure your average speed around the freeway. Overall they can track 'cars of interest' across most of the country...

They also have facial recognition camera systems on trial in several cities that - in theory - can recognize and track 'people of interest' around the city...

Privacy in public places is an illusion.

BTW, next time you're in the Bay Area riding public transit, look for the cameras which keep an eye on all the passengers.

Comment 3 by Adam Ness posted on 5/22/2009 at 9:59 PM

It looks to me like an integration fail. Instead of having one coordinated system that does speed and traffic light monitoring, they have one camera each direction that does speed monitoring, and one camera each direction that does stop light monitoring. Beyond that, it appears that the radar gun for speed measurement is in a separate box (or two in some cases) than the camera, meaning you've got those poles with 2 or 3 boxes hanging off of them.

Probably an example of government adopting a technology before it's elegantly solved, but that's typically the method in American Capitalism: Government funds technical innovation until private firms start buying and streamlining the processes

Comment 4 by Raymond Camden posted on 5/22/2009 at 10:00 PM

@SC - So do you often see a cluster of cameras like this though? I have no doubt that there are a large number of cameras out there, I've just never seen so many clustered in such a small space. Almost as if they were concerned about covering every square inch of road at the intersection.

Comment 5 by Michael Greb posted on 5/22/2009 at 10:14 PM

The first photo with a black thing above the light shows an IR receiver for a light pre-emption system. For example, 3M makes (or made) one called Opticom, this turns traffic lights green for emergency vehicles when the signal from the uniquely identifiable transmitter is detected.

The camera mounted with the stop light, the 'this is what you normally expect to see I think' image, is for counting the number of vehicles lined up. Lower maintenance than the old school inductive loop method and low res images as well. These cams aren't useful for speeding/red light runner identification.

I agree with Adam Ness about this likely stemming from integration issues.

Comment 6 by Eric Cobb posted on 5/22/2009 at 10:21 PM

I think they're putting in two separate systems at once. If I'm not mistaken, the camera on top of/between the traffic lights themselves is actually a sensor used to help determine when to actually change the light.

Some lights are set up on timers, and some use underground sensors that are triggered when your car rolls over them. But lately I've noticed a trend of more and more traffic lights being converted over to the top mounted sensor. I even see these up at intersections that don't have speed cameras.

These don't have anything to do with the camera taking the picture of you speeding through a stop light. The big bulky ones on the poles beside the street are the ones that do that.

Most likely, as @Adam said, it's two separate projects and the govn't just got one contractor to install them both at once.

Comment 7 by Eric Cobb posted on 5/22/2009 at 10:23 PM

Yeah....what @Adam and @Michael said! :-)

Comment 8 by Bill Downs posted on 5/22/2009 at 11:02 PM

This is not an attempt to moderate public behavior as much as it's a revenue stream for the local government. I don't run red lights but I've come close on a few occasions when on unfamiliar ground at an intersection with a 'quick yellow. What's happened in the UK was a form of liberty creep - formed under the guise of public safety and the turned on the public to advance other agendas. We're all guilty of something; j-walking, speeding, red light running, spitting on the side walk, dropping a piece of trash, tailgating, texting while driving, eating a two handed sandwich while changing lanes [ ok enough about me ;) ]- the point of all of this is that are we going to allow our society to become so watched that even the slightest mistake gets you a fine, a point, or a yellow "your a bad person card"? The system in the UK creeps me out like a Cruise Minority Report couch dance.

I'm 100% for personal responsibility but there will come a time in my lifetime where just being human will be a finable offense.

Comment 9 by shag posted on 5/22/2009 at 11:13 PM

@bill, getting the yellow card wouldn't be politically correct. that might hurt your self esteem, so i don't think that will be implemented here. we wouldn't want anyone to think they did something wrong.

Comment 10 by David posted on 5/22/2009 at 11:14 PM

Ray, there's a contradiction in your sentiments:

"I'm pro-red light cameras. I'm pro-speed vans. Frankly the argument that they invade your privacy is bunk."

and

"But I have to say - when I drive through this intersection now I feel like I'm in a prison, or in the middle of 1984. "

What Sean said about England is correct, HOWEVER, it should be noted that more surveillance hasn't dropped the crime rate - Britain still has one of the highest crime rates in the industrialized world.

Not once did all of the surveillance stop, for example, the IRA from committing their crimes in Britain / Northern Ireland all through the 80's and 90's.

So, in the "sacrificing security vs. freedom" debate, when all of the "Big Brother" technology doesn't make you safer, what's left to sacrifice?

Comment 11 by John Dowdell posted on 5/22/2009 at 11:15 PM

That does look like a lot of cameras.... ;-)

Singapore has one of the most extensive systems I've seen, where there are distance-based fees on driving:
http://www.lta.gov.sg/motor...

jd

Comment 12 by Raymond Camden posted on 5/22/2009 at 11:16 PM

David - how is it a contradiction? My point was - it seemed like a LOT of cameras. Much more than I've seen before. I like beer too. But 10 beers would be a heck of a lot and give me pause. ;)

Comment 13 by David posted on 5/22/2009 at 11:27 PM

Ray, your sentiments are to be pro-camera....until there are too many cameras. If we're really going to stop speeding in your town, or mine, we're going to need a LOT of camera's, watching you wherever you go. That's just a practical implementation of the desired end result. You also say that having all those cameras make you feel like you're in a prison, or in 1984 - well, yeah, that's what's going to happen. An unfortunate side effect, but necessary if we are to achieve the stated goal.

Now, getting to your analogy, if the end result "get drunk" then 10 beers would probably be the requirement, regardless of whether you liked, or wanted 10 beers! (suck it up dude!)

MY point is, that if you've subscribed to the notion that camera's ARE the way to stop speeding/red light running, then don't complain about the number of camera's erected. Leave it to the authorities to put up as many camera's as necessary in order to achieve the objective. If you think there are too many camera's, or you are living in a prison/1984, then let's come up with other solutions to solve the problem.

Comment 14 by Ben posted on 5/22/2009 at 11:30 PM

@Ray (re: @David)
Maybe your sentiment would be better expressed as, "I'm okay with being watched as long as it's not obvious!"

:oD

Comment 15 by Thomas Case posted on 5/23/2009 at 12:26 AM

Ray,
Of course, Red-Light camera's and Speeding Camera's, etc., are great income generators for cities. :-)

Comment 16 by Raymond Camden posted on 5/23/2009 at 12:26 AM

@David: I don't think taking things to the extreme really helps much. Just because I say I'm ok with RLCs (getting tired of saying red light cameras, and let's let it also stand for speed vans) doesn't have to imply I'm ok with a camera over every square inch of the planet. (Although with spy sats it is probably close to that.) As I said, more than anything, I was just surprised by the _amount_ of cameras. I had a hard time believing so many were necessary, but if you want to pin me down, then yep, I'm fine with em.

Comment 17 by Bill Downs posted on 5/23/2009 at 12:27 AM

One day your car will spit out tickets from the dash when you do something wrong and say to you,"citizen, you forgot to yield another citizen. Your fine is 10 food rations. You are further fined for the use of an unkind word and additional 3 food rations ... 4 rations .. 5 rations. Citizen, your vehicles engine has been shut down due to multiple infractions. Have a nice walk home. Do not worry, we'll watch you all the way."

Comment 18 by Bill Downs posted on 5/23/2009 at 12:31 AM

Sorry ... I've seen Demolition Man and Judge Dread too many times.

Comment 19 by Raymond Camden posted on 5/23/2009 at 12:33 AM

My only exposure to JD was via the horrible Stalone film. I need to pick up a comic collection next time I visit the shop.

Comment 20 by Jeff Gladnick posted on 5/23/2009 at 1:08 AM

As for Red Light Cameras, I had some experience fighting them back when I lived in Delaware. Overall, this is how it basically goes down in every state that implements them:

1) Grandstanding politicians present the cameras with an emotional appeal to save lives and injury, and a financial argument that it will bring in money without raising taxes. The Public eats it up, the red light cameras come in.

2) A few months (or years) go by and politicians point out that side impact accidents have gone down dramatically. What the conveniently leave out is that rear end accidents have gone way, way up. For example: I Maryland, a 40% increase in rear-end accidents, in Georigia, 21%
Source: http://www.autoblog.com/200...

But, the red lights DO bring in some money...

3) So millions of dollars are flowing in to a cash strapped state. But its never enough, so creative legislators decide to shorten yellow light times.
(source: http://www.techdirt.com/art...

The idea here is you'll catch more people, and this works for a while, until people adapt and get jumpy and start slamming on the breaks, which causes even more rear end accidents.

Now, onto some specifics. In Delaware, where I did manage to get access to the report delDOT produced, out of about $7 Million brought in by fines, about $5 Million went to the company operating the cameras. In connecticut. Thats $5 Million bucks shipped right out of the state economy. Its leaving and probably not coming back.

On top of that, because of the pesky constitution, you have the right to challenge your accuser. Delaware conveniently got around this by passing a law that said "well not for this, we're calling it a civil offense, so it doesn't count". Other states weren't accepting this. So anyone from out of state who ran a red light camera in Delaware did so with impunity, they did not have to pay the ticket, and Delaware had no way to enforce this. Delaware DID have to pay the company managing this anyway, so the net effect was a loss.

Overall, the state lost money, shipped wealth right into a private company in connecticut, and was only able to show a decrease in accidents at SOME of the intersections by THROWING OUT the first 3 MONTHS of data after the cameras were installed. They justified this by saying it was an adjustment period, so it didn't count.

Well for the people fined, and injured as a result, it does count.

Comment 21 by Raymond Camden posted on 5/23/2009 at 1:16 AM

All those people who rear ended others - I assume they were all following standard safety practices in how closely they were following folks? I know I do and haven't rear ended anyone who slams their brakes. I know its a small point in what you said, but is there _no_ consideration for the fact that maybe people do need to try to be better drivers?

I wonder how the 'you have to face your accuser' factors in in other cases. For example, if there is video evidence that you murdered someone, isn't that evidence even though you can't cross examine the camera?

Comment 22 by Jeff Gladnick posted on 5/23/2009 at 1:32 AM

@Ray: Of course they weren't - the people were most likely following to close - OR speeding up. The natural inclination of most people when they see a yellow is either to slam on the brakes if they think they won't make it, or SPEED UP if they think they will.

Red light cameras throw this equation about of balance. Previously, people had to worry about whether or not they were safe, but now have to ALSO worry about whether or not they will get a ticket.

So you have situations where 2 people approach a red light, and it turns yellow. The 2nd person thinks, I can make this, and speeds up. And He may be right. But the first person thinks - I'm not getting another damned red light camera ticket, and breaks...on a yellow they could have made. Person #2 slams into the the rear.

Sure we could argue for safer driving practices, but if the goal is to reduce accidents, there is only one solution, and its free: Increase the yellow light time. Its the only scientifically proven method for reducing accidents. http://www.motorists.org/ph...

For you're 2nd point, I'm not a lawyer, but in your example, the accuser would be whomever examined the tape. Then you could question them and try to prove it wasn't you, or the tape was a forgery, or whatever your defense was.

In the specific case of red light cameras in delaware, a policeman still had to review and "sign off" on them, but for one reason or another (unfortunately I cannot completely remember), the other states wouldn't accept this as good enough, or they didn't meet the burden of proof required.

Comment 23 by Raymond Camden posted on 5/23/2009 at 1:35 AM

I guess I'm one of the crazy guys who thinks, "yellow means stop if I can safely, don't go crazy trying to make it." I hate it when I can't go because ten cars are making a left turn even though their light turned red already. Bugs the heck out of me. ;)

Comment 24 by Jeff Gladnick posted on 5/23/2009 at 1:49 AM

@Ray: You certainly are, and if we had more Ray Camdens driving around we'd likely have safer roads and a super-robust open source coldfusion community.

The question is what are we going to do about the other jerks? The red light cameras provide some means of deterrance, but its passive. It cannot prevent someone from plowing into you.

I believe that extending the yellow light times works so well because it doesn't fight against human nature, it adapts to it. The bad drivers who were previously running red lights are now running yellows. They have been, in a sense, decriminalized.

Comment 25 by Baz posted on 5/23/2009 at 3:17 AM

Maybe we can house the released guantamo prisoners on that intersection..

Comment 26 by t b posted on 5/23/2009 at 7:47 AM

Sure wouldnt want to be hit and knocked into any of the camera poles.

perhaps a gps/dashcam in each car is what "we need" integrate it with the so called "black box" and if we get cited, our car can show the colr of the light, the time, and our speed and acceleration/deceleration rate.

Comment 27 by Jeff posted on 5/23/2009 at 8:22 AM

The best red light camera story (urban legend?) is the guy that gets sent a red light citation including a picture of his car. He sends back in the envelope a picture of a $50 bill (the cost of the citation), and the folks at the DMV send back a picture of handcuffs. Obviously an urban legend, but funny.

My biggest beef with Red Light Camera's is that they (in NC at least) require you to pay before you can appeal. WTF?

Comment 28 by jason posted on 5/26/2009 at 7:25 PM

There are several problems with the cameras:

1) The presumption of guilt. While there are definitely those who do run red lights, and commit other crimes, the camera implies that we all do.

2) No improvement to driving safety. As mentioned, cameras alter driving behavior in so much as to make it unpredictable. An unpredictable driver is the most dangerous. Additionally, if someone runs a red light because s/he is absent minded, if only temporarily, how will the camera, also to be unnoticed improve safety? If you want safer roads, we need roadways that are designed to accommodate human behavior, not repress it.

3) Cameras make crime pay. When a crime is committed, no one should profit from it: not the criminal, not the state, not 3rd party contractors. When revenue can be attached to a behavior, humans will find a way to increase it without a thoughtful regard to the consequences. Look to the confiscations related to enforcement of drug laws for the most egregious instances of excess.

I think it is possible my mindset might change once I have kids, but for now I think that the pursuit of safety often comes at too high a price.

Comment 29 by Aegis posted on 5/27/2009 at 6:02 AM

Shame you guys don't live here (Darwin, Australia). Every few years our coppers and politicians get red light camera happy and install a bunch. There's a big blitz, they make a packet, then the 90% humidity that hangs around for 9 months of the year kills the cameras within a year. Everyone blames each other over the failing of the cameras and nothing gets done to fix them for a few years.

to be fair though, most times the people who run those lights here are doing it deliberately. The only lights with red light cameras on them are on our main inter-state highway. Most of those intersections have warning lights on them that start flashing about 5 seconds before the traffic light ahead turns yellow (this is because we have a lot of road trains on these roads (trucks hauling up to 5 trailers) and they obviously need a lot of warning to stop). I think these warning lights, more than anything, have reduced accidents here - it amazes me how many people slow down on the warning even though the light is still green (you can make it through if you're just pulling level with the warning lights generally =))

Comment 30 by Raymond Camden posted on 5/27/2009 at 6:08 AM

I had to look up road train (http://en.wikipedia.org/wik.... Pretty darn cool if you ask me - but I'd be a bit worried driving around them.

Comment 31 by RobG posted on 5/27/2009 at 11:13 PM

I wish I had seen this blog post sooner...

Red light cameras ONLY work when proper engineering principles are NOT followed. There are formulas that are supposed to be followed to set the YELLOW LIGHT timing at a given intersection. When the yellow light timing is proper, red light cameras don't produce enough tickets to be profitable, and in most cases end up being removed.

ONLY in the cases where the yellow light timing is set too short do the cameras generate more tickets. This has been proven time and time again. And these cameras, just like speed cameras, have NOTHING to do with traffic safety and everything to do with revenue generation.

If anybody wants to know more, go to http://www.motorists.org of which I have been a proud member since 1992.

Comment 32 by Mikey posted on 5/29/2009 at 1:59 AM

I am surprised you did not get arrested while skulking around taking all those photos. You are certainly a suspicious character!

Comment 33 by Raymond Camden posted on 5/29/2009 at 2:09 AM

I'll be honest - the thought crossed my mind that I'd be asked what I was up to.