Are Speed Cameras a Trap?

Money & Ethics

Are Speed Cameras a Trap?

Camera placement should be determined by public safety concerns, not revenue potential.

Q. My city contracted with a company to install speed-activated cameras on our streets, ostensibly to reduce accidents and improve pedestrian safety. The city shares the robust ticket revenue with the company, which seems to have a say in where the cameras are installed.

Very few cameras were placed on busy, congested streets—where speeding would be most dangerous, but where it is difficult to drive at even the posted speed and revenue from tickets would be low. The champion revenue generator is a camera in a long underpass with a 25 mph limit—four divided lanes, no cross streets, no pedestrian access, where motorists can safely make up a little time without endangering anyone. Your thoughts, please.

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A. Although you didn’t ask, let me first address red-light cameras, which I support. Such cameras have been shown to reduce red-light running and prevent accidents. But some cities shortened the yellow warning light without telling residents first, raising suspicions that a boost in ticket revenue was as important as roadway safety. Moves like this should be made only after an extensive public awareness campaign.

Speed cameras are a trickier issue. Reducing dangerous speeding is a laudable goal, and cities may use any methods at their disposal, both human and technological, to accomplish it.


But camera placement should be determined by public safety concerns, not revenue potential. Cameras should be placed only where the police request them, based on evidence of a genuine safety problem in that location—such as a higher-than-typical accident rate—not the mere fact that most motorists exceed the speed limit there. If that’s the case, it suggests that the posted limit may be unreasonably low.

Traffic-calming street designs—with features such as raised crosswalks, speed bumps and bike lanes as needed—are often more effective than speed cameras. So is skillful timing of lights to enable traffic to flow freely at or below the posted limit, reducing driver frustration and the temptation to speed.