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With Better Measurement, Lower Stakes?

+ Brandon Fuller

In April, Chicago’s City Council approved Mayor Emanuel’s speed-camera ordinance. The passage of the ordinance was not without controversy and a recent poll suggests that a majority of residents oppose the move. The opposition to speed-cameras stands in contrast to support amongst Chicagoans for red-light cameras, a similar technology that has been intensely opposed elsewhere in the United States. Why the legitimacy gap between red-light cameras and speed-cameras?

Mayor Emanuel did make some compromises to get the speed-camera ordinance approved, agreeing to run the cameras for fewer hours, focusing cameras in safety zones around schools and parks, and lowering the fines for less severe violations. The speed-cameras will not be binding right away, instead they will be phased in after a test period. Violators will receive warnings for the first 30 days, after which violations in the 6 to 10 mph over range will be fined $35 and those in the 11 mph over range will pay $100. The pace of phase-in for the speed-cameras will however be significantly quicker than the pace that Mayor Daley set for  rolling out the red-light cameras back in 2003. In part, the more favorable attitudes toward red-light cameras may reflect the slower phase-in and the amount of time residents have had to get used to them.

Another reason some voters dislike traffic cameras is the notion that the government is simply making use of surveillance technology to boost its revenues. When cities make deals that pay private providers a share of each fine generated by the traffic cameras, suspicions that the programs are more about money than safety are only exacerbated. The competition among service providers in this space suggests that cities could write contracts in ways that don’t further raise suspicions.

What’s clear is that the way cities structure traffic camera programs can have a significant impact on the perceived legitimacy of the programs among voters. New technologies that allow cities to more effectively measure traffic violations should be accompanied by correspondingly lower stakes for initial violations. If the the city can more easily observe violations, the punishment needed to induce compliance doesn’t have to be as strong. The perceived legitimacy of traffic cameras would improve if initial (mild) violations resulted in a warning. Punishments for subsequent or more severe violations could then rise accordingly.

If governments don’t take care to manage the perceived legitimacy of their enforcement strategies, the social norms of residents will remain misaligned with the formal laws of the state. Ultimately, this misalignment may cause voters to reject technologies that could truly improve safety and quality of life in cities. In the case of Chicago, I think Emanuel’s concessions on the ordinance will be enough to shift resident sentiments about speed-cameras from opposed to supportive over time—but only if the city refrains from actions that are seen as efforts to generate more revenue rather than enhance safety.

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