« Attention Felons: Reducing Gun Crime in Chicago | Main | Corporate Prediction Markets »

May 26, 2006


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

saul levmore

The absence of automated tickets is puzzling, unless we see it as part of a regime in which low level enforcement is desired. For example, on tollways where one receives a card on the way in and then pays by distance on the way out, it would be easy to give automatic tickets for speeding; a few more in/out barriers and card markers would be needed at rest stops, and perhaps some adjustments for traffic jams, but in most circumstances you would simply owe a fine if you exited from the tollway before your time. Yet we do not see this. 100% enforcement seems like too much. Persoanlly, I might like this sort of precommitment to non-speeding. The automatic tickets might actually be better with 100% enforcement. If we knew that every intersection has a camera, it might make the receipt of the ticket less startling and upsetting.
We have a very high percentage of audits of some aspects of our income taxes. If my reported wages or interest payments do not match W-2's or 1099's received by the IRS, there is a good chance I will be contacted. My sense is that most people like this - and like it much better than the higher cost and confrontation of a less automatic audit. I guess I'm suggesting that, game theorists aside, near-perfect enforcement, rather than low cost discretion-free automation, is the more attractive component of some of these schemes, but not all.


I actually think it's a very interesting question whether we would want all laws enforced. Imagine a technology of perfect lie detection. The government could set it up so that once a year each citizen goes in for "confession." The government would only ask questions relevant to criminal activity. If you've committed a crime during the year, you are punished.

At first glance, this seems horribly intrusive (though remember, they can't ask about any legal but embarrassing activity). Then again, so long as it's not selective (so there's no danger of discrimination), it doesn't seem so bad to me. A lot of the problem is that as a society we don't seem to want certain laws enforced. College students are allowed to smoke pot, coworkers can have an NCAA tournament pool, etc.

Presumably, though, we would change the laws if we actually had to abide by them. One possibility is that there is a tacit compromise in the status quo in which we criminalize things on the understanding that the police will exercise good discretion. So for instance, when sodomy was illegal, it wasn't REALLY illegal in the same way that tax evasion is. Religious people could feel good about the laws that were on the books, but those laws didn't actually hurt many people. Alternatively, it might be very difficult to write laws that can't be gotten around, so we criminalize everything and then let police enforce things case by case. This would explain why informal betting among coworkers is illegal (if it is; I don't really know): it would be hard to legalize it without opening the door to the seedier forms of gambling.

When this tacit compromise is destroyed by perfect (or better) enforcement, we face hard choices. Perhaps we should have faced them all along, but now they are becoming operationally real.

The Law Fairy

James brings up an interesting point. To take it a bit further, what if we did have perfect enforcement, and discretion, if we wanted any, would have to be built into the text of the law?

A positive of this is that we would finally be rid of such disgusting problems as racist law enforcement. A negative is that it would in effect negate the feasibility of compromise. I suspect a large part of the reason politicians are able to compromise is that laws are not so specific and literal as to be closed to interpretation. I suspect that floor debates would be considerably longer and more contentious if once a law was passed, it was absolutely one hundred percent effective. In fact, it might lead to the prevention of the passage of new laws. In the very worst case, it might lead to increased resistance from the general public, such as rioting (if you're already going to get in trouble for breaking a new law, why bother peaceably protesting?). All of these problems would be increased costs -- possibly the costs would be so increased as to negate the value of precision enforcement.

Matt Parker

Though it's not unique to automatic ticketing, One major problem with any automated system of law enforcement is the implicit transfer of burden-of-proof. In other words, it becomes up to the violator to not only challenge the evidence of his/her guilt, but also to overcome a very strong presumption that the photo proving guilt is indeed accurate.

As far as red-light violations, there are really only four defenses: mistaken identity, system error, tampering, and justification. System error and tampering are really only restatements of problems inherent in the current system, i.e. an officer either mistakenly (system error) or fraudulently (tampering) identifies the light as red.

But mistaken identity and justification are where the true issues lie. During a physical traffic stop, the ticket goes to the actual driver of the car, not its registered ownder. Thus ensuring that the actual violator is ticketed. Similarly, when stopped in person, the driver can explain to the arresting officer why the law was violated and argue for an exception.

This is distinction is crucial. Take mistaken identity. In a traditional traffic violation, if necessary the arresting officer can attest to both the violation AND the identity of the violator. Thus it is the burden of the state to prove both elements of the crime. However, with automatic tickets, the identity of the driver is assumed to be the registered owner, and it is up to the owner to prove that he/she was not the driver.

Of course, with most traffic violations, none of this is all that frightening. However, as with most instances where governments improve the efficiency of their law enforcement it could be very easy to envision more troubling applications. Just imagine if the IRS automatically seized 25% of all your income at the moment of deposit in a bank, and it was up to you to prove that it was, in fact, a gift.


I'm curious as to the level of the penalties levied under the red-light automatic ticketing regime. Where our system of imperfect enforcement levies penalties which are some multiple of the actual social cost from each instance of speeding, shouldn't we (and by "we" I mean the driving public) be more wary about the level of fines levied under an automatic enforcement regime? In a system of perfect enforcement, shouldn't penalties simply approximate a compulsory license (objectively determined ex ante) between the speeder and the government to travel above the speed limit? This would seem to work out well in the copyright/DMCA context: instead of statutory damages in the $1000s, in a world of perfect enforcement couldn't we just have a "government iTunes Store"-type clearinghouse? Setting aside DRM for a second and focusing on file-sharing copyright issues independent of circumvention, if we are able to track, e.g., Bittorent traffic, why can't we set up a "ticketing" regime where you get a bill for $10 in the mail everytime your IP has downloaded the latest episode of "Lost." A portion of this fine could be channeled to the copyright holder. I'm not sure we're too far from the technology required for this regime; moreover, a kind of automated Bittorent "ticketing" system would allow for small-scale copyright violations to be ticketed rather than the PR-nightmare suits required for copyright-holders to pursue claims of direct liability currently. The fine levied could still be some multiple of, e.g., the iTunes Store price to direct transactions to the legal market, but the fines would not be so exorbitant as to create the huge backlash against copyright holders currently extent in the web community.

By way of example, I go on Bittorent and download the latest Lost episode, and two weeks later a ticket arrives (by snail mail? by email? - I'm not sure how anonymous IP addresses really are on Bittorent) for $10. One clear problem is that $10 fines can really start to pile up, and a college student facing $20,000 in liability for 2000 files shared on Bittorent poses a similar PR challenge currently facing copyright holders. But again, more widespread enforcement should mean less monetary liability in amount for bigger fish, which I would see as a plus both for feasibility of recovery and for the all-important PR surrounding copyright liability for file sharing. There is a "Robin Hood" norm surrounding copyright infringers which must be changed or at least lessened if copyright is to function properly in the digital age. DRM is one solution, but there are still unprotected bootlegs flying around Bittorent, so for the immediate future, more traditional copyright liability shouldn't be ignored. As far as the current "Robin Hood" norms, they stem at least in part from an utter failure by copyright holders to make any headway in the PR regarding file-sharing. Multimillion dollar suits against college freshmen make the fight seem like David-and-Goliath and bring out the "Robin Hood infringer" mentality. More disperse, lower-fine enforcement could help to inculcate a law-abiding norm in the file-sharing context.


Very interesting post. The connection between automatic red light tickets and the DMCA has occurred to me as well, especially after hearing a commercial on local radio for a product that you can spray on your license plate to make it highly reflective and (presumably) render the flash photograph of your plate unreadable. (Who knows if this actually works.). The text of the ad was somewhat carefully worded, but the implication was clear. This is a pretty close analogy to the DMCA, which really only creates liability for circumventing the enforcement system, or distributing a tool to help people circumvent. (Radar detectors are another close analogy).

I wonder if most people would agree that the sale of such products should be illegal in the red light ticket context. The stakes are obviously higher than copyright, given that running a red light can result in bodily harm and death. And it would seem someone using this product would be emboldened to run the risk of making the light. But the ad also struck me as an example of how Americans often react negatively to efforts to enforce law in a systematic and efficient way. It seems a strain of the independent, libertarian, limited government aspect of the American identity.


But...doesn't it go to show that the system of stop lights may be flawed? We've all seen people run red lights (obviously never done it myself) & make it and the efforts to disguise license plates are getting more & more inventive. Perhaps, we should consider altering the system. I'm not suggesting accommodate criminals to make their actions legal and this solves the problem, however if I owned a street I'm fairly certain I would put in roundabouts wherever possible. If we're discussing lower costs, certainly this lowers electricity costs & removes the need for cops watching intersections or high-tech automated tickets. Obviously, roundabouts are not the sole answer, nonetheless if we're creative there are other low cost options to providing safer travel, rather than finding more inventive ways to 'catch' people.


Ah, but Priscieve, wouldn't you rather collect fines from those drivers who value getting somewhere in a hurry most highly rather than installing "roundabouts wherever possible"? If I'm speeding through a red light to get my pregnant wife to the hospital, it should be worth it to me to pay a $20 fine in a world of perfect enforcement, and the owner of the road is similarly better off. More generally, perfect enforcement can be a way of price discriminating between those drivers who hurried travel is truly important - where society might be better off if they're allowed to coast through a changing light - and those for whom it's not worth paying a fine. Installing roundabouts is only a solution if we truly believe that it's simply never socially beneficial for someone to be able to coast through a changing light, which to me seems empirically untrue.


If it weren't for Whren, I would argue that the best thing about automatic traffic enforcement is that it reduces pretextual (and frequently race-motivated) stops. Both because there would presumably be fewer police on the roads, and because the state interest in ticketing speeders would have already been satisfied (i.e. the policeman who pulls over a non-reckless speeder is less likely to appear to have had speeding on his mind). But under the current state of the law, this bonus is all but absent...


That all assumes you make it safely through one light. How many lights might you face? Are you certain to safely pass without injuring those in your car & others? Nothing in life in certain, however, I can't help but wonder why a system is designed where an individual looking to save lives must choose whether to run a light, potentially causing harm to various others, or stay and wait the light out, causing harm to the mother/unborn.


But again, you're drawing a conclusion that NO possible degree of urgency can allow coasting through a changing red light. Certainly going through changin lights is more than an annoyance - it's dangerous. But is it the most dangerous thing in the world? I would argue not. The calculus is then whether there can ever be a situation where the probability of some kind of accident from rolling through a changing light, multiplied by the likely harm were such an accident to occur, comes out to a probable harm which is less than the value added by decreased time traveling to, e.g., the hospital. The (prob*Harm) is then the optimal traffic light fine levied. We've all seen innumerable people run a changing red light without actually getting in an accident, so p is certainly less than 1. This would argue for some finite fine, not a roundabout, which essentially deters completely any valuable running of changing lights.


Red light camera is effective in deterring red light running. In Chicago, violations dropped 35% at intersections with cameras during the first two years. Some intersections have seen bigger reductions --69% at Ashland and 71st. Red light camera is also blind to the color or clout of the driver. Finally, as with a parking ticket, there is no need to prove who the driver is since the ticket is not a moving violation that accrues points against a driver's license.

Ed Felten

I don't buy the DMCA analogy. A DMCA-like system would have (a) private parties setting up and running the cameras, and (b) liability for getting photographed, whether or not you were actually violating traffic laws.

Perhaps there is some idealized version of the DMCA, lacking the poor drafting and abuse-potential of the actual DMCA, that can be analogized to government-run speed cameras whose evidence can be appealed to a judge. The gap between this idealized DMCA and the real one is too large to be ignored.


The red light cameras are interesting. Generally, they are installed by the company that makes them free of charge to the municipality (I believe that Lockheed Martin is a player in this area). The corporation then collects a potion of each fine for the installation. As it turns out, the most effective way to limit red light running is to have the yellow last a couple of seconds longer. Knowing this, the corporations who install such systems require that the yellow be shortened enough to catch more people off guard running the red and collect more fines. When this practice came out publically in Mesa, Arizona, there was a backlash and the City was allowed by the corporation to exend yellow lights for a bit longer, even though it meant fewer tickets and less money going to the company that installed the system. I think what this tought me is that the system has little, if anything, to do with safety and everything to do with maximizing profits. Not sure how this new information fits into the DMCA, however.


I was send ticket in mail due to RED light at Lawrence and Cicero .. Time was on Ticket around 10pm. picture show i made Right went west on Lawrence from Cicero.

There is posted sign at all side at that Intersection no turn on Red 7am to 7pm..

I contested that ticket they still want me to to pay.. pls help .. HELP HELP



I have to say you have a great blog, i really enjoy reading it, i have bookmarked it so i can find it back

Keep up the good work



I was cited for a running a redlight based on the temporary plate on the car. The problem is the plate was not mine, different by 1 digit, and the model of the car was not even the same as mine.

I sent in paperwork showing it was not my plate and not the same model car I own, but a week later I was told that the traffic court ruled against me with no recourse.

Welcome to Chicago. Any way I can fight this?

Adam Novak

oh common all you do-gooders.... this is ridiculous.... what a fuckin' police state... give me a break!!! 1984 all the way! The city is allowing a corporation to make money off of all of us... The light I went through @ Madison and Western had practically no yellow.... I wonder why.... Hmmm... How can we make more money off of Chicagoans.... Lets shorten the yellow... slap a contract with a corporation to take care of the actual construction... All in the name of safety.... Lets just make everything safe... I want to feel incredibly safe at every light... We are gonna be incredibly safe in America... Daley you make me feel so SAFE!

michael jones

Driving is so important nowadays! But we have to be careful on the road because after the test we are alone in the car and everything depend on us.


I was a Chicago resident for 58 years and I can't believe what I'm hearing about the sneaky, corrupt ways Chicago politicians are collecting revenue at the cost of drivers.

I moved to Wisconsin but I am still in contact with many of our friends that still live there and what I'm hearing blows my mind away!! I was told that intersections with cameras basically eliminate the yellow light altogether so if you are, say, 10' from the intersection and the light turns yellow, you better jam on the brakes and take the risk of being rear-ended by a garbage truck or get a $90.00 fine in the mail that you can't beat. The camera basically eliminates the yellow and goes from green right to red and if you go to court to dispute your ticket, you SHALL be found guilty as evidenced by the 3 pictures the camera took of you and your vehicles plates and you SHALL be fined the $90.00 + court costs and it SHALL go on your record. Is this a classic case of extortion or am I being misled?

In their defense it was very nice of Chicago to make it very convenient to pay your fine by mail and it won't go against your record. From what I understand they also provide convenient locations to pay your fine with those really cool rope corrals that makes you feel like an animal waiting for slaughter.

The more I hear about Chicago politics the happier I am I got the F*** out of there. The only problem is that now they are trying to come to my area and start the same BS here too!


The comments to this entry are closed.