Upper Left Coast

Thoughts on politics, faith, sports and other random topics from a red state sympathizer in indigo-blue Portland, Oregon.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Are we close to "Shut up and do what we say"?

An anonymous poster responded to my comments about surveillance cameras and their cousins — photo radar & drug testing — by pointing out a study by the Virginia Transportation Research Council on red-light cameras.

Despite the fact that I didn't write about red-light cameras, I'll accept the premise that they fall into the same family. However, for every study one can cite against these law-enforcement techniques, I'm certain I can find one in support. Here are a few, cited by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety:
A 2002 Institute study reported that within 6 months of implementing speed cameras in the District of Columbia in 2001, average speeds declined 14 percent and the proportion of vehicles exceeding the speed limit by more than 10 mph declined 82 percent. In Garland, Utah, a speed camera system plus extensive media coverage and strong support by city officials successfully reduced average speeds in a 20 mph school zone from 36 to 22 mph. Crashes and injuries had been high in the school zone, but 8 months after camera installation there were fewer crashes and not a single injury collision.

In Victoria, Australia, speed cameras were introduced in late 1989, and police reported that within 3 months the number of offenders triggering photo radar decreased 50 percent. The percentage of vehicles significantly exceeding the speed limit decreased from about 20 percent in 1990 to fewer than 4 percent in 1994. A Norwegian study found that injury crashes were reduced by 20 percent on sections of rural roads with cameras. Research from British Columbia, Canada, showed a 7 percent decline in crashes and 20 percent fewer deaths the first year cameras were used. The proportion of speeding vehicles declined from 66 percent to fewer than 40 percent, and researchers attributed a 10 percent decline in daytime injuries to photo radar. A detailed analysis of speed camera enforcement in Cambridgeshire, United Kingdom, reported that injury crashes in the immediate vicinity of camera sites were reduced 46 percent. One of the most ambitious efforts to control traffic speeds on a heavily traveled urban highway is on the M25, which circles London. Speed cameras are used in conjunction with a system of variable speed limits that are adjusted based on weather and traffic conditions. There were 28 percent fewer injury crashes during the first year of the program; preliminary data for the second year indicate that such improvements are being maintained.
Sounds like a good thing to me.

This anonymous poster goes on to a typical civil libertarian response about where the slippery slope will lead. He (or she) writes:
So how far does this extend to, mmm? What liberty would you be willing to give up, even though you aren't doing anything?

Would you be okay with your local government requiring a random drug test from everyone in the city every few months? They'd pay for it out of tax dollars, of course, but you'd still have to pee in a cup.

You'll have nothing to worry about, though, cause you're following the law, so this is just something to make life better...right?

There are laws floating around that would require automatic breathalyzers in all cars. While these are installed in the cars of some repeatedly convicted drunk drivers (they are required to blow before start-up, and every ten minutes afterwards while the car is in operation), some want them in all cars.

You'd be okay with that, right? I mean, you're not driving drunk, so there's no problem there.

It's not a long thread between "for the common good" and "for your own good" and "shut up and do what we say," is it?
This is a topic that has room (and, I would argue, a need) for disagreement in order to avoid complacency, but this writer extends the argument to the rediculous. There's a big difference between a photo radar van enforcing the speed limit on a thoroughfare known for excessive speeds (which is no different than a police officer parking his car along that road and doing the same thing), vs. drug testing for all citizens. Law enforcement is not intruding in your privacy by setting up a radar van on a public road; it most certainly would be stepping over the line by installing a breathalyzer in every private vehicle.

It comes down to a) whether there is probably cause for the action, and b) whether it's obtrusive in your life. The police know from past history and public complaint that the speed limit is regularly (and dangerously) exceeded on a certain street, so they enforce the law through a benign method — photo radar (either hand-held or automated) that pinpoints the law breaker and ignores the rest. If I'm driving the speed limit, I may not even know I've gone through a photo radar zone, so there is no intrusion.

The police also know that a small percentage of drivers will get behind the wheel after using substances that limit their ability to operate a one-ton hunk of metal. However, requiring blanket drug tests or breathalyzers would intrude on the lives of sober drivers, who constitute the vast majority of drivers. That's why I would argue that, for all their value in identifying impaired drivers, sobriety checkpoints should be used judiciously. If law enforcement can pinpoint specific areas that are known for high incidents of impaired driving, I can stomach that intrusion, just as I can stomach a bag search at a ball game based on the increasing propensity of fans to bring weapons and other dangerous objects. (I would argue, though, that the latter is more an economic decision designed to prevent fans from bringing their own food and beverages to the park, thus forcing us to pay $13.50 for a beer and a brat.)

As technology progresses, it will become more possible to check for, say, inebriated drivers without any visible intrusion in our lives. However, there's a concurrent discussion that must progress with that technology: is it appropriate for tax dollars to go toward paying for, say, universal drug testing? How do the benefits of getting drunk drivers off the street mesh with the ideal of keeping government from unnecessarily intruding on our lives? That's when the answers won't be so easy, so it's entirely appropriate to be debating these questions before the technology has the ability to render the answers moot.

But for now, I disagree strongly with the writer's statement that it's "not a long thread between 'for the common good' and 'for your own good' and 'shut up and do what we say.' " That's not just a long thread, it's a multi-strand rope. As I said above, this is a topic that has room for disagreement, and it is the civil discussions over those disagreements that keep the rope from fraying into weak threads that are unable to support the weight of our liberties. Americans generally understand the difference between necessary law enforcement to promote our responsibilities, and unnecessary intrusion that infringes on our liberties. Anything that pulls that rope over the pit of intrusion will be debated passionately, and then cut off at the knees.


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