Tuesday, July 9, 2013

A Proposal for Interstate Traffic Enforcement

A thought occurred to me while driving across the country from Chicago to Colorado.  Why do we enforce speed limits using highway patrol officers, anyway?  At the margin, isn't there a better use for police officers?  Let me preface my proposal by saying that it is probably politically untenable, but that doesn't mean it isn't worth thinking about.

Consider an alternative enforcement system where the traffic authority installs cameras at each Interstate access point (onramps and exits), and regularly at 10 mile increments.  These cameras take pictures of license plates and register the time each car passes through each checkpoint, and these locations and times of passthrough are reported to a centralized computer system.  Given this information, the computer can automatically work out an average speed for each increment of Interstate traveled for every car on the Interstate.  

If you get from checkpoint to checkpoint too quickly, you have obviously been speeding, and the computer sends you a ticket in the mail.  No fuss, no ambiguity, no discrimination by any demographic category, and no gaps in enforcement.  It would be clear what is a speeding violation, you would have perfect (or near perfect) enforcement of speeding rules, and as a result, you could never rely on the excuse that others were speeding and weren't caught (alternatively, you could take comfort in the fact that anyone driving faster than you also got caught).  Moreover, the system would allow you to "decriminalize" speeding so to speak.  That is, because it is so cost-effective to police speeding at a near-perfect enforcement rate, the speeding ticket fine could be reduced so as to achieve the desired effect -- consistent adherence to the rules of the road.

Once such a system is installed, there are some other advantages.  For one, you could be more flexible with speed limits than "don't go above 75 miles per hour."  Instead of the standard system, you could actually include a speeding price schedule.  If you want to speed, you'll have to pay for it, and the traffic authority could post prices for speeding just like toll roads post tolls.  

In setting the price schedule, you would obviously want to make it expensive to travel too fast, but then, the speeding issue becomes one of setting prices rather than upping patrols.  For example, between 75 and 85 miles per hour, the speeding fee could simply be paid in money.  Above 85 miles per hour, you might have to start taking points from the driver's driving record.  Either way, the fact that the system allows a plethora of enforcement options is a nice feature.  In this way, adding a little technology could free up patrol resources for other tasks while improving Interstate traffic enforcement.

And, about the startup cost of this system, it might not be so bad.  Colorado already has a license plate toll system for its tollways (and it works quite efficiently), so expanding the idea to the rest of the Interstate highways seems like a minor step.  After all, it is a toll system where the toll depends on the speed you travel.  If other states do not already have similar systems, they could follow Colorado's example.

An additional advantage of such a system is that it would make it easier to police car thefts (as long as thieves take the Interstate for some part of their joy ride), and to track down fugitives.  On this note, I'm sure there would be objections to this proposal by people who value their privacy.  For the system to work, it would have to record who you are (i.e., whose car is registered to whom), where you are traveling and at what time, and how quickly you traveled from point to point.  I'm not a privacy law expert, but there seem to be some principles of privacy at play.

Whether or not it violates the letter of privacy law, my proposal probably would be dead on arrival in any legislative chamber.  Nevertheless, it begs some important questions.  Would you rather have a completely non-discriminatory, but near-perfect enforcement mechanism that knows when and where you take the Interstate?  Or, would you prefer a regime where most people speed, and as a result, traffic police have to pick and choose who they apprehend for traffic violations (potentially on the likelihood of apprehending people for other crimes committed, which might give leeway for demographic profiling)?  

It is not clear to me which system I prefer, but the automatic checkpoint system has some things going for it.


  1. I think the main problem is cost. In Chicago, intersection cameras cost around $25,000 to install and $15,000 per year to maintain, so having cameras at each on ramp, exit, and 10 mile point would be expensive. In addition, there's still a need for police on the road to deal with accidents, bad/drunk driving, and other issues so its not clear what the optimal reduction in police would be.

    1. I think the cost issue is a fair point, which is why I bring it up in relation to the Colorado toll roads. They already have these cameras installed, and a system in place to mail tickets to your home. All they'd need is to tweak the system to measure your speed, and that's just a timestamp at each checkpoint.

      To your point, it's possible that this proposal is prohibitively costly in dense urban areas (where there are lots of exits, and lots of other reasons to police the roads as you mention), but not so prohibitively costly once you've made your way out of the city and into the country. From recent driving experience, rural Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, South Dakota, North Dakota, and Colorado seem to be good candidates -- not so many cameras, but lots of road to police.


Please feel free to share your ideas about this post in the open forum. Be mindful that comments in this blog are moderated. Please keep your comments respectful and on point.