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Photo enforcement could make streets safer. Is the tradeoff in privacy worth it?

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Years ago, I rented a car in Germany with some friends. The autobahn famously doesn’t have an overall speed limit – but, as I discovered the hard way, many sections of it do.

Weeks after coming home, a letter arrived from the rental car company with a speed-camera ticket from the vicinity of a tunnel, where I apparently hadn’t slowed down in time.

Aparting from being an impressive display of zealous Teutonic rule-enforcement, that ticket, and the international effort it took to deliver it to me, were a reminder of how much authorities could crack down on unsafe driving – if they really wanted to.

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Traffic deaths in the United States continue to rise. Nearly 43,000 people died in 2021.

Many of the solutions involve seemingly technocratic fixes like better road design and car and truck safety features.

But the elephant in the room is enforcement.

A much stricter enforcement system is technologically possible: the state could line the highways with speed cameras, and free municipalities to put up cameras to ticket motorists speeding or running red lights. “Vehicle-to-vehicle” communication technology can share speed data with other cars on the road to prevent crashes; there’s no reason it couldn’t share it with the police, too. And if you put those cameras at every intersection, and monitor the speeds of every car, concerns about disparate enforcement between neighborhoods disappear.

Imagine how different the experience of driving – or walking, or biking – in Boston would be if violators could generally expect to get caught and fined. Evidence from other jurisdictions suggests that even far-from-complete camera coverage does indeed lower fatality rates.

A sign warns motorists of the presence of a red light camera in Chicago.M. Spencer Green/Associated Press

Now, you might be a cyclist reading this and think, bring it on! And indeed, speed cameras tend to be a popular cause among bike and pedestrian advocates. But now imagine the cameras are connected to facial recognition software, and can fine jaywalkers and scofflaw cyclists, too. Still a good idea?

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Where to draw the line separating appropriate safety measures from dystopian invasions of privacy is always controversial. In Massachusetts, speed and red light cameras are illegal. A recent state highway safety plan recommended a pilot program for red light, speeding, and work zone cameras, but such proposals have gone nowhere in the past.

But we should at least acknowledge that forgoing available technologies is a choice, a tradeoff between privacy and safety that we’ve resolved in favor of privacy. The longer American traffic deaths remain above international averages, the harder that choice may become to justify.



Alan Wirzbicki is Globe deputy editor for editorials. He can be reached at alan.wirzbicki@globe.com.