The village of Elmwood Place, Ohio, population just over 2,000, is a low-key community, not usually featured in national headlines. But that's changed in the last year, as this village, which is almost entirely surrounded by the city of Cincinnati, has become the latest battleground in the contentious war over speed cameras.
As the the Associated Press has reported, the Elmwood Place town council had been concerned about heavy traffic dominating the local main street. As many as 18,000 vehicles a day were often speeding through Elmwood Place on their way to other destinations.
In the name of slowing people down and making the streets safer, the village installed speed cameras operated by an outside company called Optotraffic. Under the terms of the Optotraffic agreement, the town gets 60 percent of the speed camera revenue and the company gets the rest. In just one month, those cameras resulted in 6,600 tickets at $105 a pop.
There was one day that half the congregation of a local church got ticketed, and the pastor there said attendance by his congregation – many of them Vietnamese refugees wary of government surveillance – had shrunk by 20 percent as a result.
As the citations started arriving in the mailboxes of unsuspecting motorists last year, people got mad. Elmwood Place became the target of a vigorous anti-speed-camera campaign, waged on Facebook and lauded by national anti-camera organizations such as the National Motorists Association. Outraged drivers called for a boycott of Elmwood Place, which was already struggling financially.
A class-action lawsuit was filed claiming that the tickets were issued unfairly. The cameras are just a money grab, claimed opponents, many of whom take a broad anti-government stance and fly the Tea Party flag. In March, a county judge ruled that the cameras had to come down.
“Businesses have lost customers who now refuse to drive through Elmwood,” wrote Judge Robert P. Ruehlman. “Churches have lost members who are frightened to come to Elmwood and individuals who have received notices were harmed because they were unable to defend themselves against the charges brought against them.” He called the cameras “a high-tech game of three-card monte.”
The town filed a motion to have the case removed from his jurisdiction, saying that Ruehlman’s decision betrayed a prejudice against speed cameras, but in June, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that the case could proceed before him. Four members of Elmwood Place’s town council have resigned over the issue, and it’s not yet clear if the town will pursue the issue further.
Speed camera opponents, in the Elmwood Place case and elsewhere, position this as a matter of personal freedom. “We are not unlike you or most other people,” it says on the “about” page of the National Motorists Association. “[W]e want to drive what we want to drive, go where we want to go and in the process not be unwitting cannon fodder for self-serving government programs, over-bearing police departments or greedy courts.”
Speed cameras and red-light cameras, these advocates claim, are often rigged to entice drivers into behavior that will result in a ticket, with speed limits changing suddenly or yellow lights that change to red more quickly than a motorist can reasonably expect. A researcher from the University of Tennessee recently told NPR that red-light cameras can create “ethical dilemmas” for traffic engineers who might feel pressure to shorten yellow lights in order to keep revenue steady as compliance increases.
But those who put the cameras in place are responding to a very real burden faced by small towns, suburbs, and urban neighborhoods around the country. The roads and streets that go through their communities are seen by many who travel over them as simply means to an end. Drivers moving through at high speed endanger local people and make once-thriving village streets into highways where no one wants to stop or shop.
Law enforcement resources are down – the village of Elmwood Place has only one full-time police officer. In this type of situation, speed cameras can seem like an easy solution and one that produces cash, to boot.
Some studies have shown that speed cameras do improve safety on the roads where they are installed. But as the Elmwood Place case demonstrates, they can have unintended negative effects as well. Not only is the village now embroiled in expensive litigation, it has developed a local reputation as a place to avoid, and businesses are suffering.
A better solution might be a comprehensive redesign of the roadway, such as the one I wrote about earlier this week in Hamburg, New York, which turned the town’s main street back into a place rather than a high-speed conduit for traffic. Main streets designed as places naturally slow people down, decrease crashes, and provide real benefit to local economies.
The National Motorists Association correctly points out that people drive above posted speed limits all over the United States. Antiquated engineering standards dictate roads, with wide travel lanes and wide clear zones on either side, that essentially urge people to drive faster.
The NMA’s fix is to increase the speed limits, allowing drivers to blast through our communities at an ever-faster pace. That solution, however, rests on the assumption that driving faster and faster is the highest value in our society. It isn’t, and it shouldn’t be.
Yes, it costs money to rebuild for slower, safer speeds, the way Hamburg has. But it costs money to build roads faster and wider as well, and lawsuits over speed cameras don’t come cheap. What we have to ask ourselves is what kind of places we want to pay for with the money we have.