Since its launch in the late 1960s, automated traffic enforcement has stirred controversy for many reasons over the years; effectiveness, accuracy and potential to quickly generate revenue are common public concerns to this day.
Despite these suspicions however, the majority of citizens surprisingly continue to support this technology, as many believe its potential to save lives and improve road safety is hard to ignore. Still, when it comes to public perception, the world of automated traffic enforcement is not easy to navigate, as any deployment requires care, accountability and responsibility from all parties involved.
In this article, we will explore what can positively – or negatively – impact public support for automated traffic enforcement cameras, and what you can do to ensure a successful deployment.
Safety should always be the main priority
Regardless of where automated speed enforcement is implemented, its main purpose should be made clear to the public from the start: it's about safety, not revenue.
In a four-year automated speed enforcement camera program in the U.K., there was a 43% reduction in fatalities and 29% less pedestrians injured in areas where traffic cameras were deployed. This decrease moved public perception of automated traffic enforcement towards a positive direction, as the purpose was clearly to reduce carnage on the roads, not punish drivers. During and after the program, the Department for Transport commissioned multiple independent surveys, finding that 82% of those questioned agreed that the use of traffic cameras "should be supported as a method of reducing casualties." Overall, 71% of the U.K. public strongly believed that the sole purpose of traffic cameras is to save lives. Even towards the program's fourth year, the public generally remained in favour of traffic cameras.
In the United States, public surveys typically show strong support for automated traffic enforcement as long as it is justified based on safety. A 2011 national survey of drivers found that 86% thought automated speed cameras would be acceptable to enforce speed limits in school zones, while significant majorities also thought they would be acceptable at high-crash locations (84%), in construction zones (74%), and in areas that would be hazardous for police officers to stop vehicles (70%) or would cause congestion (63%).
Factors that directly impact public perception
Even with the right message at heart, are still many challenges to be overcome for an automated traffic enforcement program to be successful in the public's view; if mishandled, it can even potentially lead to termination of such programs. Here is a list of positive and negative impacts to watch out for, and how to potentially resolve them:
Having specific target sites for automated speed enforcement (school zones, work zones, etc.)
Communities that never had automated speed enforcement before may be hesitant to have a large-scale deployment right in their back yard. Informing the public that traffic cameras will only be installed in certain well-defined areas will ease public anxiety about the program.
Use of any excess revenue/overspending
Governments are responsible for finding the best automated speed enforcement technology for the available budget. Any excessive spending will likely negatively impact public perception, as taxpayer funds are usually stake. Hiding any extra expenses from the public will also draw severe criticism.
How to make it positive: Researching the right automated traffic enforcement cameras will go a long way in maintaining the original budget. Additionally, make any expenditures transparent to the public and, if it happens, carefully explain why any overspending on the program was necessary. As an act of good faith towards the community, some municipalities will use the revenue gained from tickets issued by traffic enforcement cameras to pay for other traffic safety projects, such as pedestrian crossings, traffic calming measures or pedestrian safety campaigns.
Effectiveness of traffic camera technology used (accuracy, image quality)
A high accuracy rate will minimize public frustration, as any violations can be properly justified by authorities. Negative perception can quickly rise if the cameras only work part of the time and if their capture accuracy is poor; the public will not trust unreliable technology that is seemingly there only to take their money.
How to make it positive: Carefully choose the right automated traffic enforcement cameras from the start, and ones that have a proven track record for reliability and accuracy.
Severity of penalties for violations (level of fines, points on license, etc.)
The level of punishment for violations should be carefully reviewed, as every automated traffic enforcement program is different. For example, more severe penalties (bigger fines, potential demerit points on the license) will discourage future violations, whereas minimal penalties may not. Note that these rules may vary depending upon jurisdiction.
How to make it positive: Having public surveys and researching localized crash data can be useful when determining whether violations need to be more or less severe on violating drivers.
Covert automatic traffic enforcement deployment
Lack of signage, hidden cameras and no warning to the general public often appears to unfairly "ambush" drivers and will only lead to severe backlash.
How to make it positive: Maintain constant communication with the public about the automated traffic enforcement program's launch and provide ample warning time, as well as signage to notify drivers they are entering an automated traffic enforcement zone.
Media reports and level of media exposure
As public opinion can often be influenced by local media, this can have a significant impact on a proposed or ongoing automated traffic enforcement program. If media reports are largely positive, such as a study showing a drastic drop in road accidents due to the traffic cameras, the public will remain in favour of the program. If media reports frame the program as a "cash grab" by local authorities and provide inaccurate or unverified data, public reception is likely to decline.
How to make it positive: Interviews or requests for information from the media should be appropriately handled with care and transparency. Providing all necessary information, such as crash data, costs, background on how the technology works, as well as maintaining open communication, can create a positive working relationship with the media and will likely result in more positive reports.
Existence and results of program evaluations
Showing accountability for any automated traffic enforcement program will encourage public trust. This can be in the form of public surveys, detailed reports on the program since its launch (such as reduction in crashes, improved road safety, as well as pedestrian safety) as well as costs incurred. Evaluations can also lead to better results, such as adding (or removing) camera sites, or considering other traffic solutions.
Conclusion and other things to consider
Public perception is one of the most important pieces of any successful automated traffic enforcement camera program. If handled correctly, with responsibility and care, the public is less likely to perceive its intentions as "all about the money" and that saving lives is ultimately the main purpose.
As Shawn Turner, a Texas A&M University professor and co-author of Overview of Automated Enforcement in Transportation, sums it up:
"The ultimate success of automated enforcement will not rely on the technology so much as how the technology is applied and how transportation professionals interact with state and local legislators, local judiciary, and the public when implementing automated enforcement."
It is equally important to acknowledge that automated speed enforcement is not the end-all-be-all solution to improving road safety. Governments are also responsible for offering other methods that work with automated speed enforcement cameras, such as driver education, speed limits, as well as high-visibility enforcement.
For more on how automated traffic camera enforcement can directly improve road safety, check out our case studies in Latin America.