Recently the city commissioners and the Rome School Board have been toying with the idea of putting speed-trap cameras in place in certain school zones. Yes, we had these things in Rome when I moved here in 2008. Not only did everybody hate them, they wound up being uneconomical.
The concept is simple: The camera detects and snaps a photograph of a speeding vehicle, and the ticket is sent to the vehicle’s owner (not necessarily the same person as the speeder) and he/she has to pay a $75 fine. The private camera company splits the take with the city. Although the owner is not assessed points on his driving record, he or she must pay the fine to renew the vehicle’s registration.
To bolster the promoters’ case, the Rome Police provided a study in which over 90 speeding violations were recently recorded over a nine hour period on the bypass next to Rome High and Middle Schools. It was unclear whether the 90+ violations occurred before school came back in session, or whether the nine hours were continuous or just during hours when the school zone restrictions were in effect. It would also have been helpful to know how many accidents or injuries involving school children have happened there. Why wasn’t this information provided? Frankly, it’s hard to imagine a serious bypass accident endangering children on school grounds because the school buildings are well back from the bypass and fenced in, never mind that the intersection at the bypass already has a traffic light to allow traffic in and out of the grounds safely.
Besides a questionable need for these things, there’s a bigger problem: We are a government of laws, administered by men, not by cameras. The U.S. Constitution guarantees us a right to a fair trial which includes the right to confront witnesses and cross-examine them. Good luck on cross-examining a camera. It won’t answer a single question because it can’t. Nor can it be put under oath, like normal witnesses. Even if the camera is functioning perfectly, it can’t even identify who was driving the car. I agree that a person should be held accountable for violating laws, but that person needs to be positively identified. Even someone caught speeding by radar must be identified by a police officer before being cited. Anything less than this violates the sanctity of the presumption of innocence guaranteed by our American Constitution.
I’m all for school safety. We’re not asking the police to monitor the school zone 100% of the time; I agree they can’t be everywhere all the time. But they can be there during the hours speeding restrictions are in effect. Then the person who violates the law can and should be held accountable.
Finally, assuming one can get past the constitutional problem, why isn’t the city’s take of the speed trap cameras earmarked for child safety? The current proposal merely puts the money in the hands of the Public Safety Department, which already has a budget. Why not do something positive to increase safety for the children? A badly needed start would be to make sure that all school buses, new and old, have working seat belts. Passing a bus this past week on the bypass, I saw middle schoolers wandering around its interior. That is plainly unsafe. Seatbelts would protect the children in the event of an accident wherever it occurs, but a speed trap camera just can’t and won’t do that.
Paul F. Culotta