Scameras and johns

The City of Worcester has likely heard enough from me regarding traffic cameras.

But that won’t stop me from a couple more comments:

1) Both Jo Hart and Konnie Lukes commented on the excellence of the presentation that a traffic camera company gave to the Council four years ago.  I would certainly hope that a salesperson could throw us a good pitch.  It is the job of our elected officials to review the claims of the salespeople, to talk with customers (past and present), and to dig deeper than a Powerpoint and a few handouts.

2) Someone on left a comment about how well Baltimore’s red light cameras have been working.  In fact, they work from beyond the grave!  A deceased police officer signed off on more than 2,000 tickets.  And their speed cameras work so well that they’ve needed to add school zones that are far away from schools.  There are other concerns about speed and red light cameras in Maryland, including inadequate testing for accuracy.  Color me unimpressed.

I would, of course, like to reiterate what Rick Rushton said: this would punish the owner of the car, not necessarily the person who actually had a traffic violation.

Regular readers of this blog know my passion for public works.  There are a great many things that can be done from a traffic engineering perspective to improve safety for both those in cars and pedestrians. 

Despite statements from some councilors and Ms. Hart, I do not believe this is a city full of crazy drivers who blow through red lights. 

Drivers are frustrated because this is a frustrating city to drive in.  As we learned from the latest CMRPC regional mobility study, there are too many people who take quick, one or two stop trips on I-290 because it is too much of a hassle to drive in the city.

Instead of trying to make money from bad intersections, we have an opportunity to save people money (caused by crashes) and solve some of the problems at those intersections. 

In other revenue generating vehicular news, everyone’s favorite gadfly has gotten one step closer in his quest to confiscate the cars of johns who are soliciting prostitutes.

Hartford had tried a similar program fifteen years ago.  Here’s how successful they were:

Once the cases arrived in court, judges often returned the vehicles to their owners. Sometimes the cars were registered in a wife’s name, a parent’s name, or were not fully paid off and were not worth seizing. Other times, the accused was not convicted and the car, by law, had to be returned.

Of dozens of cars it towed, the Hartford Police Department was awarded one: a 1973 Comet.

“And that’s because the guy didn’t contest it. He probably wanted to get rid of it,” said Capt. James Flaherty, commander of the city vice and narcotics division. “Seizing the cars proved more difficult than just hooking the cars and taking them away. I wish it was that easy.”

Easton, PA has also adopted this type of program in 2008, but had to discontinue the program due to legal challenges.  It’s unclear whether they’ve been able to restart their vehicle seizure program.

Los Angeles and some other California communities had implemented similar vehicle seizure programs.  These ordinances were later overturned by the California Supreme Court.

While Portland, OR seems to have had success with its program, it’s unclear how many vehicles are seized from johns, though they do return most vehicles back to offenders.  You may read that the recidivism rate for those who had their cars seized in Portland is an extremely low 1%.  That figure is from a paper written more than a dozen years ago, and the statistics were from 1989-1993.  Only 5% of the cars seized were eventually forfeited, and — though I’ve been looking — I can find no long-term studies on recidivism or the effectiveness of this program.

As you can likely guess, some of the problems with this kind of program are similar to those with red light cameras.

You could be punishing the owner of the vehicle instead of the person who is accused of the violation.  This could be the wife or husband of the john, the john’s employer, a car rental or lease company.

Regarding vehicle seizure for johns, we’d be confiscating something before someone was convicted of a crime.  That makes me about as comfortable as putting a traffic camera company in charge of ticketing people.

And we’re still not clear on what we want. 

In the case of the red light cameras, it’s unclear whether we want safety or revenue.

In the case of seizing vehicles from johns, it’s unclear whether we want to reduce prostitution, reduce street prostitution, or reduce the appearance of prostitution.  Are we trying to shame the johns so that they won’t solicit again?  Scare potential johns from soliciting in the first place?

I cannot be the only one in this city who is becoming increasingly concerned about the emphasis on punishment, and especially on overpunishment.

There seems to be a view among some of our elected officials that a great majority (or at least vast minority) of our citizens are just one red light (or one red light district) away from causing massive social disturbances.  From some of the councilors’ comments yesterday afternoon (Rules) and last night (Council), one would think we were living in one big Rollerball-esque prostitution zone.

I think that if we have issues with certain crimes that we should be proactive about addressing the real causes of those crimes and not try to shame or rip off people.

And I think we really need to start wondering why we keep electing people who think most of Worcester is the scum of the earth.