A Look Back at Arizona’s Speeding Cameras

Jun 15

What Arizona’s cameras really meant to us and how they temporarily took away our ability to be our own personal bad-ass

Back in September of 2008 Arizona started up a program that installed speeding cameras on freeways in the Phoenix area and deployed cameras across the state.  Former Arizona governor Janet Napolitano championed the program which she famously estimated would bring in at least $90 million dollars in its first year.  However, just two years, $78 million in revenue, and one camera technician shot later, the program was shut down.

So what happened?

At a time when the state really needed additional revenue, it seemed to some that increased funds from tickets could certainly help.  Of course, Napolitano and her camp always insisted that the cameras were about public safety and had little to do with generating revenue.  However, the number of Arizonians that believed Napolitano were about the same as those who like getting speeding tickets.

So what was the big problem?

Some people claimed it was an issue of “big brother watching” and insisted the cameras represented a violation of their personal liberties.    Others said they were mad because the whole camera scheme was not cost effective and failed to bring in the massive revenue that was promised.  Still others insisted that there had been no marked improvement in highway safety that justified the camera’s presence.   It’s all possible.  Arizonans certainly are an independent bunch who aren’t opposed saving money and keeping their roads safe.

However, I think it’s something more.

We like to break the law.  Not a lot.  Just a little bit.  Just enough to know that we are our own personal “bad-ass.”  When we’re out on the Speedometerhighway, alone, and no one’s around, even a soccer mom in a minivan becomes a rebel.  She looks once in her rear-view, twice in her side mirrors, once again in her rear-view.  The coast is clear.  She hits the gas and opens it up to a cool 80 mph, feels the wind rushing through her barely-cracked window.  No one’s around to see it.  No one’s around to criticize it.  But there it is:  she’s broken the law.  And you know what?  It feels damn good.

Now, I don’t condone breaking the law.  It’s bad.  Very bad.  Don’t do it.  Leave that tag on your mattress, don’t sample grapes at the grocery store, and certainly don’t jaywalk.  These things are evil and very wrong.  But in some small way, they also feel very right.

And that’s what the citizens of Arizona were really responding to.  No one really gave a crap about the highway traffic cameras’ ability to generate revenue, and no one was really that concerned about whether the government was tracking them.  Some people might have been mad about the cameras’ ability to promote highway safety, but most of us never even saw the safety statistics.

Everyone was just really upset that the cameras took away that little opportunity we have to be our own personal bad-ass.  They stole the chance for the pink-faced pudgy actuary to act out his “rebel without a cause” on his hour commute home.  They snatched away the ability for bad ass driverthe elementary school teacher to put her pedal to the metal and rev-up her pink Volkswagen Bug on the lonely highway.  They nullified the opportunity for the father of three to shift-that sputtering Chevette into gear and see if it could even hope to exceed the speed limit– law or not.

And all that hot emotion?  It was taken and given to something impersonal, cold, and unthinking.  A bit of metal and glass attached to a computer.  A machine that didn’t even have the decency to be angry at us when we violated the law:  a lowly camera.

And that’s the second part of what the cameras both gave and took away:  they took away the human emotion of “being caught.”  People don’t want to get caught for a ticket, but if they are going to get caught, they want it to be by a real human presence.  They want a form, a body, a person that they can direct their anger to in a material way and that has the ability to respond in kind.  A camera is cold, lifeless, and about as fun to argue with as a rock.

Having a rule imposed on us by a machine just reminds us of how pointless and arbitrary human law, rules, and society are in general, and who wants that?  Even when we’re punished, we want to know we’re not alone in the human experience.  It’s an act.  A play.  And in their roles, the punisher must feel as just in his actions as the punished feels the actions are unjustified.

caught by copSo the cameras are gone now.

The police are back.

And I just got a ticket for speeding 5 mph over the legal limit on the highway.

I’m pretty pissed.

I really am.

But you know what?  I’ll take being pissed-off at a police officer who knows that I’m fuming any day over a traffic camera that registers me in binary bits.

Editors Note:  I’m sadly probably the king of speeding in Arizona, so I have some experience with traffic tickets.  If you get the option to do an online traffic school course, I would recommend www.arizonadriver.com .  It’s pretty quick and easy and I’ve never had any problems getting through the course (and back on the road) in a couple hours.

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