Vol. 8, No. 21
May 25-31, 2000
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'Gotcha Cameras' Could Have You Seeing Red

Excuse us if we don't hop about with glee at the arrival of every new technology trumpeted as a way to improve our lives.

Now comes another innovation billed as the way to stop accidents: The red-light cameras that Anne Arundel County will begin installing this month. One day, you'll open your mail and be ordered to send $75 immediately because you have been captured on film breaking the law.

If you're like us (yes, we're confessing receipt of such a letter from the District of Columbia) you'll have no memory of your sin. No idea if that was the time your son had your car. And perhaps a faint recollection that it might have been the day when you scooted out of the way of a howling ambulance.

But you'll write that check. Even if you're convinced you did nothing wrong, you know you won't have a half-day to spend in District Court until, say, the Friday after Thanksgiving. If you're anything like us, you'll be irritated.

We know, we know: It's all about cutting down on accidents, a worthy goal that we have written about in this space as well as elsewhere in the paper.

But we've also noted our belief that the end doesn't always justify the means, especially when government avails itself of another opportunity to put us under surveillance.

Or is it government? Of the $75 fine, about one-third goes to Lockheed Martin, the camera operators. Something about sending money to the world's second biggest defense contractor ($64 billion in sales last year) makes the new Gotcha Camera doubly insulting.

Forget the possibilities of mistakes, camera error and justifiable circumstances like emergency vehicles or wacko tailgaters. We only have to look west to where, as The Washington Post reported last week, the District of Columbia was collecting $10,000 a day from photos at an intersection that wasn't really an intersection at a light that wasn't a conventional stoplight.

Anne Arundel County is not the first to take the plunge. Red-light cameras have been used for years in Canada, Europe, South Africa, Israel and Australia and now are permitted in about a dozen states. Wherever they're installed, there's a debate about putting Big Brother on the corner.

Defenders say that society widely condones photographic surveillance. It happens every time you visit an ATM or buy a slurpee at the 7-Eleven. They say just be glad you don't live in Los Angeles, where the fine is $271.

We agree: That's one more reason we're glad we don't live in Los Angeles. And we're sorry that Gotcha Cameras are pushing Chesapeake Country one step nearer to the road-warrior mentality of big cities, where you know they're out to get you - and that's not a paranoid delusion.

Safety on our roads is an end we support. We don't condone Cyclops surveillance as a means to that end.

Copyright 2000
Bay Weekly