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The Daily Wildcat

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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Speed cameras an invasion of privacy

    If there’s one thing we all agree on, it’s that people drive like maniacs these days.

    The subject of unsafe drivers is that rare topic that you can raise in any circle and find a virtual consensus on – particularly in Tucson, where intersection-runners are as common as cacti. As someone who’s been confronted with at least three cars driving in the wrong lane in the last six months, I’m the last person to deplore more stringent enforcement of the traffic laws.

    Recently, however, our county government decided that our police force was inadequate to confronting the problem of traffic safety. Like the supermarkets that are gradually phasing out human clerks in favor of “”self-checkout”” aisles run by computers, Pima County has decided to turn the enforcement of our traffic laws over to surveillance cameras.

    On paper, the camera campaign appears to be a successful one. Tucson installed 10 cameras this year to catch speeders going more than 10 mph over the speed limit, and there are already four cameras at intersections to catch red-light runners. The Arizona Daily Star reported Friday that the speed cameras are causing drivers to slow down drastically in their vicinity, by up to 90 percent in one location.

    There’s only one problem with the cameras: People hate them.

    “”I still hear from constituents that it’s the most obnoxious form of government that they’ve ever been subjected to,”” Pima County Supervisor Ray Carroll told the Star. Who can blame them? No one likes getting a traffic ticket, but at least a ticket from a police officer can be debated and contested. A traffic ticket issued by a machine is harder to argue with.

    Apart from a few Republican opponents, the increasing amount of electronic surveillance on our streets and highways hasn’t spurred much debate in high places. It seems to be taken for granted that the government has the right to do whatever it wants in order to make the streets safer.

    But a widespread sentiment, right or wrong as it might be in its specifics, nearly always contains a kernel of truth, and it’s worth wondering why so many people resent the cameras, and asking whether they might not have a point.

    It can be argued that the cameras are simply an easy way for the county government to soak up extra money without raising taxes; to those of us who don’t view governments as benevolent by nature, that provides the most plausible motive. On the other hand, if it reduces the number of accidents, does that matter? A lot of people would argue that it doesn’t. “”I’m sorry; call me cold-hearted, but I have no problem with governments getting money from people who break the law,”” snorted the Tucson Weekly’s Tom Danehy in March.

    If we accept this premise, other drastic steps follow as naturally as one note follows another in a song. Jaywalking is a problem; therefore, we must eventually expand the scope of street surveillance to cover all streets at all times. Neighborhood crime is a problem; therefore, we must install a camera on every mailbox and next to every treehouse. The final goal, of course, is a society in which no one can commit any crime at all because there will be no inch of territory not under surveillance.

    The point isn’t that we should dismantle the cameras and leave it at that; the red-light cameras, at least, probably do make intersections safer. But does it really make the streets safer if drivers are drastically dropping their speed in certain areas, only to speed up as soon as they’re safely out of camera range?

    More important still, are we willing to sacrifice every iota of our privacy to the government, even for a seemingly good cause?

    My own answer is no; I suspect that most Tucsonans would answer the same. It remains to be seen whether our elected officials agree with us.

    – Justyn Dillingham is the editor in chief of the Arizona Summer Wildcat. He can be reached at

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