Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Are automated traffic cameras really "race neutral"?

An article about the race implications of automated red-light and speed cameras caught my attention.

These cameras have been increasingly employed in many American and Canadian cities in an attempt to change driving behaviour in a "race-neutral" way". And they certainly do seem to work. After receiving a few automated tickets, people really do tend to slow down and to think twice about running a changing light. As a result, most cities that have adopted the strategy have noted substantial improvements in accident rates and pedestrian and bike casualties. You'd be forgiven for doubting it, but it has also led to fewer police-black confrontations over minor traffic violations, some of which tend to escalate out of proportion, particularly in gun-happy America.

I know from personal experience that, when Toronto started introducing speed cameras in earnest a couple of years ago, I got caught twice in quick succession, and I have since become much more careful about sticking to the speed limits wherever I drive (especially given that the cameras are moved around periodically).

But then some cities started to notice that the tickets being issued were disproportionately affecting black and Latino drivers, even when the cameras were situated equally in majority-black and -white areas. Policy-makers worried that the pandemic had resulted in more middle-class white residents being able to work from home, while working-class black and Latino residents in "essential" jobs had no choice but to continue commuting. Cities like Miami and Rochester New York abandoned their automated camera programs convinced that they were in some way still "racist".

But a speed or red-light cameras can't really be racist, can it? The people who receive the automated tickets are clearly contravening city traffic rules, rules that are in place for good reasons. Maybe, on average, black and Latino people are just more aggressive drivers, in the same way as Italian and Eastern European drivers tend to be aggressive? It would surprise me, quite frankly, because I think of middle-aged white guys in Audis and Mercedes as being more typical offenders, but it's not beyond the realm of possibility and it's not necessarily racist to suggest that, I don't think. And, if speed and red-light cameras are making our streets safer, then power to them, I say.

Speed cameras seem to be here to stay in Toronto, and in Chicago (which the article in question focused on), and in many other cities. Race activists will no doubt interpret the statistics however they like, but we should be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath-water.

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