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Speed Demons

Sep 24, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 02 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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It’s pretty hard not to have some misgivings about the increasing government surveillance of citizens, though reasonable people can disagree to what extent this is necessary to keep us safe. However, The Scrapbook would like to think that we can all agree that when the surveillance state becomes just another means of raising revenue it’s entirely pernicious. 

And so it is that traffic cameras have spread like a cancer across the land. It’s revealing that the proliferation of traffic cameras seems directly proportional to the corruption and mismanagement of the local governments erecting them. In March, Washington, D.C., mayor Vincent Gray made a disturbing promise to “cover the entire city” with traffic cameras. Gray justified this by saying, “I think we need to do everything we can to protect people in the District from the negligent and irresponsible actions of others.”

That’s an interesting sentiment coming from Gray, who’s been under federal investigation for running a crooked mayoral campaign. A Washington Post poll this past July revealed that 54 percent of D.C. residents think he should resign. Unlike taxpayers who might be driving 8 mph over a 25 mph speed limit, there’s actually a reason for law enforcement authorities to monitor Gray very closely.

But again, safety is a laughable pretext when justifying traffic cameras—tellingly, Gray made his pledge to cover the city in cameras at a budget meeting. Last year, the city generated some $55 million in revenue from traffic tickets and expects to earn $30 million in additional revenue this year. Naturally, this means the city will issue even more traffic camera tickets, which is impressive when you realize that last year the city issued 462,601 traffic camera tickets in a city of 617,996 residents.

Amazingly, D.C. now has competition when it comes to overuse of traffic cameras. Prince George’s County, Maryland, borders Washington, D.C., to the east, and, not ­surprisingly, it too is notorious for corruption. Last year, Prince George’s county executive Jack Johnson was sentenced to seven years in prison for taking as much as a million dollars in kickbacks; Johnson’s wife was hiding an ill-gotten $79,000 in cash in her bra when the FBI arrested her.

P. G. County is also leaning heavily on traffic cameras to make up for the revenue its corrupt officials are no doubt squandering. Except that it seems that residents of P. G. County are not taking this effort to squeeze money out of them for the crime of commuting lying down.

The Washington Post reports there have been a “half dozen incidents of vandalism and general meanness toward the cameras in the county. A camera was actually shot with a gun. Another was set on fire.” But have no fear, Prince George’s County police officer Robert V. Liberati, whose official title is, and no, we’re not making this up, “Commander of the Automated Enforcement Section,” explained last week that the county has come up with a novel solution to its traffic camera vandalism problem. Commander Liberati told local radio station WTOP that they’re putting up cameras to monitor what happens to their traffic cameras.

The Scrapbook does not condone vandalism of public property, but the county’s response here does raise the question of how this Orwellian recursion is supposed to end. We’re guessing that D.C. and Prince George’s County will continue to do whatever they can to extract cash, regardless of how unfair and infuriating it is to those penalized by these proliferating cameras. The alternative would be for local officials to clean up their act and spend less money, and we all know that can’t happen.

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