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Red light cams are about cash, not your safety

The Region of Waterloo is worried about red light cameras. Oh, not that they’re an invasion of privacy, responsible for making intersections less safe or a gratuitous cash grab. No, they’re worried about the loss of revenue because some of the units they’ve installed – at great cost to citizens – are broken and aren’t soaking motorists for as much cash as officials had in the budget.

A harsh winter and construction projects have taken several units offline, resulting in $267,000 left in drivers’ wallets rather than siphoned off by the region.

But, no, the cameras aren’t about cash, say officials. Trust us, it’s about safety.

That’s the party line, but there are a growing number of studies showing that the cameras actually increase the number of accidents at intersections, particularly rear-enders. That’s especially true in jurisdictions where private companies are involved in the ploy, with U.S. reports of signal timing favouring quicker sequencing of yellow-to-red changes, the better to boost profits. (The U.S. Public Interest Research Group, for instance, reports camera vendors are aggressively lobbying to expand authorization for private traffic law enforcement to more states and are marketing enforcement systems to more communities.)

The reality is, the cameras, like photo radar, exist solely as a revenue stream, with the upfront lie (or story, if you will) being something about public safety. That other, more effective measures exist to safeguard Ontario’s drivers and pedestrians is a fact studiously ignored: they might actually cost money as opposed to producing revenue.

Proponents will argue red-light cameras – video monitors set up at busy intersections, purportedly to catch drivers running red lights – and photo radar traps penalize only those who disobey the rules of the road. That argument, however, disregards any extenuating circumstances in favour of a static image, a system with no flexibility.

More insidiously, the devices become a state-sanctioned monitoring system aimed at the public, a clear violation of our right to privacy. Those rights, as we are all aware, are constantly under attack in this digital age – governments are doing precious little to protect us from the efforts of private information gatherers. With photo radar and cameras at intersections, politicians and unaccountable bureaucrats are in fact throwing in with those bent on curtailing our privacy. That is hardly acceptable, but it’s exactly what accepting such measures would mean.

We have become accustomed to financial outlets tracking our spending habits via credit and debit cards; “security” cameras are commonplace everywhere from banks to convenience stores; using the Internet leaves a clear trail to those in the know. In the private sector, we still have something of a choice to avoid some of the tracing measures, though not as large as we think – nor as large as we should have if regulators were doing their jobs. But when the government begins installing what are in essence tracking devices with gleeful abandon, we have the state sanctioning this dangerous and invasive practice.

Given the government failures, nobody’s watching the watchers. With photo radar, red-light cameras and the like, government joins the rank of the voyeurs.

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