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After 35 years in public education as a high school English teacher and university administrator, I began my second life as a freelance writer, winning San Diego Society of Professional Journalist awards for my opinion columns in the former San Diego daily North County Times and the San Diego Free Press.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Better Than Red-light Cameras

I'm a fan of red-light cameras, despite cursing them for the $600 they cost me for a San Diego intersection photo op and online traffic school instruction.

My wife and I were on our way back from the airport when I came upon the turn off North Harbor Drive onto West Laurel Street. I call it the Intersection From Hell, where two streams of oncoming traffic, controlled by two stop lights, divide. Traffic was light that day, and we were engaged in a spirited conversation. While crossing through the IFH I asked my wife, "Did I just run a red light?" She said, "I think so."

I was certain she was wrong after several weeks of opening the mail with baited breath. Two months had passed before I received the photos of me at the wheel. They were taken from three different angles of our Honda caught in the middle of the intersection while a red light beamed in the background.

After briefly considering a court appearance, pleading old guy confusion in hopes of a reduced fine, I decided to use the painful episode as a learning experience. It not only taught me to be more alert behind the wheel, but to pay closer attention to speed limits and amber lights.

I'm not unhappy with the absence of red-light cameras in Carlsbad. Maybe there are fewer serious accidents caused by stoplight violators. But using technology to improve traffic safety makes a lot of sense. California drivers are famous for ignoring speed limits, refusing to use turn signals, and engaging in rolling stops. Traffic cops need all the help they can get to keep us safe on the road.

The most effective use of technology for traffic safety I've seen is the digital speed limit signs showing your current speed together with the posted speed limit. What makes them so effective when standard speed limit signs and your own speedometer give you the same information? Edward Muzio, CEO of Group Harmonics, explains why. The blinking of their message catches your eye with its instant feedback and displays your speed to other drivers, producing peer pressure to drive within the limit.

Aviara Parkway has digital speed limit signs lining the road as it passes Aviara Elementary School. They light up when you approach the speed limit and begin blinking, SLOW DOWN! SLOW DOWN! when you exceed it. Unlike red-light cameras, you don't get your picture taken and slapped with a fine a few months later.

Red-light camera objectors claim they make too many mistakes, that they create more rear-end collisions, and that they're just a scam to enable cities to collaborate with private companies to pick our pockets.

There's plenty of evidence red-light cameras are more helpful than harmful, but maybe expanding the use of digital speed limit signs and other technology that changes bad driving behavior, rather than simply punishing it, will be both more effective and more acceptable to those who fear Big Brother.

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