Acton Institute Powerblog

Speed Cameras and Moral Culture

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In an odd story from Maryland, Ari Ashe of WTOP reports,

Many people find speed cameras frustrating, and some in the region are taking their rage out on the cameras themselves.

But now there’s a new solution: cameras to watch the cameras.

Yes, you read that correctly. Prince George’s County, Maryland, has a problem with people vandalizing their speed cameras and their solution is to install additional cameras to watch them. In response, Michael Rosenwald says what many others surely are thinking: “This is 100 percent ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ crazy.”

Permit me, however, to begin by being as charitable as possible. According to Ashe,

Since April, six people have damaged speed cameras.

On April 6, someone pulled a gun out and shot a camera on the 11400 block of Duley Station Road near U.S. 301 in Upper Marlboro, Md.

Two weeks later, a speed camera was flipped over at 500 Harry S. Truman Drive, near Prince George’s Community College. Police believe several people were involved because of the weight of the camera itself.

Then in May, someone walked up to a camera on Brightseat Road near FedEx Field, cut off one of the four legs, and left.

“I guess that makes a statement, but we were able to just attach another leg,” says [Police Maj. Robert V.] Liberati.

But when someone burned down a speed camera on Race Track Road near Bowie State College on July 3, Liberati and his colleagues began to rethink their strategy.

This is certainly a serious problem. Whether or not one has any objection to speed cameras in the first place, these acts of vandalism, however humorous (a speed camera on “Race Track Road”?), reveal a serious moral dearth in the vandals, possibly even the larger community. According to Liberati, reports Ashe, “The roads are choked, there are lots of drivers on them. I think traffic itself is the cause of frustration (towards speed cameras).”

The speed cameras were installed in the first place in order to “keep the public safe from reckless drivers.” Certainly a noble goal. But local authorities feel that additional cameras are needed because “under Maryland law speed cameras can only take pictures of speeding” and cannot, therefore, be employed for security purposes. Hence, the “need” to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for other cameras.

But what causes the reckless driving? And what is causing the vandalism? Lack of cameras? I don’t think so. As Edmund Burke put it,

Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites…. Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.

The real need here is for people to cultivate a better moral culture in which restraining one’s own passions is taught, modeled, practiced, and encouraged. We may laugh or shake our heads about Prince George’s County, but better than justifying ourselves by comparison to them would be to ask ourselves how our own passions are forging our own fetters. We must remember that, to quote Lord Acton, freedom “is the delicate fruit of a mature civilization.” The root of such a freedom-bearing tree of civilization is the moral ecology of a society. Again, part of the problem may be the moral confusion of others, but we would do well to look first to ourselves and our communities lest a plank in our own eye prevent us from removing the speck in someone else’s. Until such moral cultivation becomes a greater priority in civil society (families, religious centers, schools, etc.), people ought to expect greater restraints upon their freedom from the state.

Furthermore, given the cost of such external restraints, I would add that we face an additional economic need for greater internal constraint if we hope for our government to be able to cut back on spending and embrace greater fiscal responsibility. A moral dearth in society leads to greater need for government spending to restrain the consequences as a matter of justice, necessarily requiring a greater drain on the economy to finance the cost. Perhaps one could still complain that cameras (and cameras to watch cameras) are not the most effective way to ensure such justice, but it would be better if such a need did not exist in the first place.

Cameras to watch cameras… coming to a community near you?

Dylan Pahman Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as managing editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in Historical Theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.


  • Publius

    I believe the author here is entirely incorrect. The “vandals” who disable automated ticketing machines do their fellow citizens a great service. The local and state governments in Maryland are the ones in need of restraint. Speed cameras are a cash grab that mock the concept of innocent until proven guilty, confrontation rights, and due process (‘owner liability’ for a moving violation is absurd). PG County even violates an explicit state law banning per-ticket contracts, just because it can. Who’s the real criminal?

    • So… one evil justifies another? If speed cameras truly “mock the concept of innocent until proven guilty, confrontation rights, and due process” and “PG County even violates an explicit state law banning per-ticket contracts,” why not sign petitions, organize protests, elect new representatives, etc.? Shooting and burning these cameras—putting the safety of other people at risk—is not a constructive solution and does constitute vandalism. Such actions hardly reflect control over one’s passions. Nor wisdom, for that matter. Acting in such a way does not “do their fellow citizens a great service.” Rather, it constitutes a failure to properly exercise one’s civic responsibility, a failure to truly act like a citizen. By misusing their freedom in this way, these people ultimately give the state justification for its restriction. To quote Burke again, “Their passions forge their fetters.”

      • Publius

        Maryland essentially has no right to referendum. It requires an impossibly high number of signatures to be collected within 30 days after the city/county adopts its ordinance. It has only been successful in Sykesville MD, where 61% ended up voting to ban the cameras — possible in a small town but not in a place like PG County.

        Political solutions are completely untenable in places like Washington DC which specifically target VA and MD commuters who have absolutely no say in DC governance. Shooting cameras might be dangerous, but spraypainting the lenses and other methods are not. A true citizen does not sit back and accept injustice simply because the government tells them its for their own good. Dumping tea in Boston Harbor was also an act of vandalism. Were the Founders ruled by their passions?

  • Agreed. This is a highly automated cash grab, and a massive extension of
    the “surveillance state.” Look at the fines on this list of stop light,
    speed camera zones:

    of mine (not in Michigan) say the red light camera tactic has become so
    ridiculous in their area that you almost have to count to 3 when you’re at a stop
    sign. Otherwise, you may be getting some unhappy mail.

    The use of roadway cameras is widespread now, and not just in localities where stop light cameras are authorized.

    Second thoughts in the UK?

    Jesse Kline: U.K. surveillance state goes too far by putting cameras in school bathrooms

  • Traffic cameras are just another form of Policing for Profit
    as Capitalism distorts our Justice System.
    These companies are bottom-feeders and take a 40% cut of the tickets
    while creating MORE dangerous intersections by fixing the lengths of yellow
    lights to entrap drivers. You can read
    about how private companies and crooked politicians have turned our Police
    forces on their ear in every attempt to squeeze money out of the general public

  • For all of you who use the Anacostia freeway (route 295) north or southbound out of the district…please stop slowing down to 35-40mph near the speed cameras…its 50mph through there and the camera probably doesn’t go off unless you’re doing 60-61mph…I do 55-60mph through there (when I can) and haven’t set the camera off yet…it’s irritating driving through there with everyone slamming on their brakes…speed cameras are dangerous

  • Sal

    We have no moral culture. If a person with a name or with no name but a lot of money gets in trouble they live by a different set of rules. It’s now so blatant that they don’t care if we like it or not. Look at a list of pardons Look at the> L.A. County sheriff Bobby Brown Serves Nine Hours in Jail for Third DUI

    L.A. County sheriff’s spokesman Steve Whitmore son of the actor told the media that Brown was released early due to jail overcrowding and good behavior.