Are speed cameras safety measures or money machines?

Ethics @ Work: Is the large number of automatic speed cameras just a way to boost tax revenue?

New traffic enforcement cameras 390 (photo credit: Public Security Ministry)
New traffic enforcement cameras 390
(photo credit: Public Security Ministry)
The Traffic Police recently installed a large number of automatic speed cameras on highways throughout the country.
The cameras measure speed, identify the automobile, and anyone caught speeding is sent a ticket by mail. In the current pilot period the ticket is only a warning, but soon people will be sent fines.
The move renewed an ancient and international debate about the true purpose of speed limits. Briefly, there are three understandings:
• The official explanation for speed limits is that going faster than the speed limit is dangerous. Public safety demands that people drive no faster than 90 kilometers per hour, or whatever the speed limit is, and speed traps and fines are necessary to enforce the regulations.
• A somewhat less generous explanation is that speeding tickets are a “speed tax.” Want to go under 90 kph? No problem.
Want to go faster? Be prepared to open your wallet. This explanation is sometimes viewed as cynical, but perhaps it is not. After all, governments do need revenue, and they have to tax something.
A speed tax is probably both Pigovian (meaning that it taxes, and thus discourages, something that we would like to discourage in any case) and progressive (since speeding itself uses more gas, fast cars are more expensive, and highly paid people presumably consider traveling a more expensive waste of time than the poor).
• The least generous explanation is that speed limits are a license to confiscate money. This argument claims that everybody speeds all the time, and the traffic laws basically empower the police to pounce on some poor innocent victim anytime they happen to need additional revenue.
Obviously the arguments are not mutually exclusive. A speed limit in a school zone may well be a safety imperative, whereas a speed limit of 55 miles per hour on a modern highway for modern cars may have little safety justification.
What does the research say about this question? Opponents frequently cite a 1985 article by Charles Lave that did not find any consistent relationship between maximum speed and number of fatal accidents. Lave found that the key variable was the variability of travel speed. Others suggested that low speed limits on well-built highways might encourage drivers to use less safe roads, thus defeating the purpose of the limits.
Proponents cite more recent research, such as a 2004 World Health Organization study that showed speed limits make a major contribution to limiting traffic fatalities. A study published very recently by Arthur van Benthem of Stanford University finds that a 10 mph speed-limit increase on highways leads to 34 percent to 60% more fatal accidents – a major factor in the author’s conclusions that speed limits are good public policy.
Note that these findings are not contradictory. Speed limits don’t necessarily reduce speed variability, but they can. And the fact that limits reduce fatalities doesn’t automatically recommend them; after all, if the speed limit were zero, no one would be killed on the highways. But that would hardly be an attractive bargain.
My take is that speed limits are beneficial, but on very safe modern highways they are often too low. A 55 mph speed limit on a modern superhighway could easily be interpreted as a revenue measure, whereas it seems prudent not to exceed 70 mph, which is the limit in some places in the United States.
In the Israeli case, the police emphasized that the new cameras were not placed in locations with the greatest number of speeders (as revenue considerations would dictate) but rather in locations with the greatest number of documented speeding-related accidents. So at least this round of “speed traps” seems like a worthwhile pilot project.
Asher Meir is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem, an independent institute in the Jerusalem College of Technology (Machon Lev).