Have you ever screamed at your printer because it wouldn’t print? Or your computer because you hit a hotkey and did something you couldn’t figure out how to undo (hint: Ctrl+z)?
This is the blessed impartiality of machines, hinted at in the infamous Hacker Manifesto (or, The Conscience of a Hacker) from 1986. The key line, referencing a computer, being: “It does what I want it to. If it makes a mistake, it’s because I screwed up.”
Anyone who’s played tech support to an older relative knows the frustration of trying to explain the all-encompassing impartiality of machines. They have nothing against you grandpa. They just do what they’re told. My grandfather, god love him, realized this and his powerlessness against it, so I gladly helped him.
But I’m not here to discuss him, or computers for that matter. Let’s talk public policy, and traffic cameras.
The impartiality of machines is why so many people hate the idea of traffic cameras. They can give other reasons and explanations, but ultimately it comes down to that. Cameras can’t be negotiated with or yelled at. They just record you, and if you speed, they mail you a ticket.
Understandably, this can make people feel like they’re caught in an enormous, faceless bureaucracy with no accountability. But the power of technology to improve our lives, especially in public safety, is best achieved by setting it loose with strict guidelines, letting us take advantage of the peculiarity of its particular intelligence. My previous article, where I make the argument that automating minimum and maximum speed limits could improve road safety, relies on the same basic idea: that machines and programs can best do their job when we take advantage of their strengths of rapid and single-task-oriented computation.
This isn’t necessarily right. And the understandable rankling at a faceless camera watching and unfeelingly judging you defeats a chance to potentially improve public safety.
Studies aren’t as robust as I would like. But an extensive review by the British Journal of Medicine from 2005 makes a strong case in favour of traffic cameras. Researchers reviewed 92 studies from 1992 to 2003. Every single one showed that traffic cameras reduced adverse outcomes (i.e., injury or death). Reduction of rates of collisions varied widely, from 5% to 69%. Injury reduction ranged from 12% to 65%, and fatalities were reduced by a remarkable 17% to 71%.
But, many of these studies were flawed, the researchers pointed out. The problem? Lack of access to randomised, controlled trials because these cameras are so controversial and so few municipalities want to introduce them.
Even if they make roads safer, many may feel that the cameras are unfair. This isn’t entirely unreasonable. Machines are impartial, not fair. They don’t care if your wife is pregnant and needs to be at the hospital ten minutes ago, or your car suffered a catastrophic failure and the gas pedal locked, or, for that matter, you had a cramp and couldn’t lift your leg off of it (nearly happened to me).
Not to mention that human assumptions go into coding even the most impersonal algorithms. A traffic camera may well be a silent and fair judge, but the rest of the system needs to play along. San Mateo, California, for example, dropped its red-light camera program after finding its yellow light was too short. Drivers didn’t have time to stop so they blew through the red and got ticketed unfairly.
Tickets, however, are manageable for most. For others, they can be challenged. This is not a perfect fix. It will disproportionately impact poorer people, who can’t afford either the ticket or the time to challenge it. I would like to propose an alternative solution, but I’m not certain there is one. Alternatives would have to sidestep the legal system (such as submitting in writing why you feel you should not have to pay the ticket), and one could challenge that system on its face. Perhaps a system where one could submit in writing their explanation could be functional?
But we are denying ourselves the chance to exercise an option. We don’t know what’s been lost, how many lives, injuries, or even just car repairs, without having had the chance to more rigorously examine the possibility. The opportunity cost, its tally in lives, is unknown to us.
Some have argued that speed cameras might make roadways less safe if drivers suddenly brake when they see one. Perhaps. Drivers do the same when they see police cars parked hidden behind bushes, as they often are. Anyone who’s driven a highway any distance has seen another driver flash their brights, warning of a hidden cop around a bend. Is that not dangerous? If so, someone better tell the police.
But without better data, these arguments are specious. They may sound plausible, one way or the other, but they deal with real, measurable phenomena. There is no value in throwing maybes at each other when this is a factor that can be measured and thereby an answer gleaned.
There’s good reason to suspect that the impartiality of those faceless video cameras might make our roads safer. That could create its own problems, ones that, ultimately, could be worse. I don’t know. Unfortunately, neither do you. We deserve to at least be able to find out.
Photo from TechCrunch