PROVIDENCE SCREWED UP. Officials there could have put up speed cameras all around town, but they only started out with a handful of locations near schools.
In a matter of weeks, they generated a measly 12,000 tickets.
Come on, Providence. You’re being too coy. You and many other cities — including Boston — could do so much more to make the streets safer.
Not everything should be about the convenience of cars. Installing speed cameras is one step toward a more balanced approach to transportation.
Alas, after WPRI-TV revealed how many violations the cameras were identifying, an outcry ensued. “Political terrorism,” one angry motorist complained to the Globe’s Dugan Arnett. Amid a throng of people contesting the tickets at municipal court, one man declared, “We should start a revolution.” It’s as if heartless bureaucrats were preying on innocent motorists out of pure sadism.
By design, cameras can only nab vehicles traveling 11 or more miles per hour above the limit. Yet the expectation that people should almost follow traffic laws — almost! — is just too much to bear.
Others have argued that the cameras, which take down license plate numbers and send $95 tickets to the registered owner, may not punish the driver responsible for a violation. The solution is easy: Don’t lend your car to people who speed through school zones, any more than you’d let a friend park in front of a fire hydrant.
More moderate critics have argued that technical glitches should have been ironed out earlier, that motorists need more warning, that smaller fines will get drivers’ attention.
Sure, whatever. The bottom line is that people respond to economic incentives. Meanwhile, unlike human observers, cameras don’t engage in ethnic or racial profiling. And they’re not interested in excuses.
We treat many car crashes like nor’easters — as strokes of bad luck, about which nothing can be done. Well, at least not by drivers. “Cars are going to hit you,” Boston Mayor Marty Walsh said on a radio show last year, scolding pedestrians for wearing headphones.
His remarks live on as a social-media gag, resurfacing every time a motorist smashes into a stationary object. The tree, or building, or Hubway station, should have taken off its headphones and paid attention!
In Brooklyn this past week, the district attorney refused to charge a driver who ran a red light, killed two children, and critically injured her mother. (The driver, it seems, has medical problems that contribute to a long history of traffic violations. There are other ways of getting around New York City.) Earlier this year, authorities in Boston cleared a truck driver who, video evidence suggests, passed a cyclist on the Mass. Ave. bridge and then took a right turn across her path.
Most Americans are drivers, and we’re conditioned to sympathize with other drivers. Especially if you grow up in places where driving is the primary — or only — way to get around, it’s easy to see red lights, stop signs, speeding cameras, and police officers with radar guns as unfair impositions. The notion that driving should be as cheap and fast and easy as possible is deeply encoded in our infrastructure spending, parking policies, and development rules.
Public officials are timid about challenging that mindset. When Walsh’s administration wanted to raise parking meter rates above $1.25 an hour — a great idea, since rates hadn’t gone up in years — it did so as a pilot program in only two wealthy neighborhoods. And while the city has lowered its speed limit and is slowly redesigning certain streets to better accommodate bikes and pedestrians, there are still plenty of de facto speedways. An enterprising Roxbury teacher, Sam Balto, recently tried using Tom Brady’s face to slow motorists down. Not even that is enough.
Ticket cameras would help. Boston should take a cue from Providence, and Providence should keep doing what it’s doing. The money a city generates from speeding tickets — not to mention congestion pricing, higher parking meter rates, and fees for residential parking permits — could go toward transit improvements, affordable housing, tax cuts, or some other useful purpose.
Regardless of where the money goes, the cameras are better than letting drivers zip on by, secure in the belief that nothing that happens in traffic is really wrong as long as a police officer isn’t looking.