A few weeks ago, I got flashed. It happened on September 22 at 7:21am. I was driving to work, minding my own business, not hurting anyone. I was on the turnpike in front of the high school. It was still dark outside and my mind was turning around the things I needed to do at work that day. NPR was on the radio. I took a sip of coffee, but before I could even swallow it happened.
I got flashed.
A week later I received my traffic ticket in the mail. A $50 fine for traveling 32 in a 20. This was 7:21am in the morning. It was a school zone. The flash was from the silent sentry, the City of Oak Ridge Photo Enforcement Program.
My town has been doing the photo enforcement thing for about two years now. They went up at three major intersections to increase road safety after a middle school girl was run over by a school bus on her way home from school.
It was hard to debate the merits of increased traffic safety. A few libertarian types cried foul and posted yard signs admonishing no one in particular to “Obey the Constitution. Kill the Traffic Cameras.” Every now and then you see a bumper sticker that says something about illegal revenue cameras. A few people raised privacy concerns, though was privacy entitlements exist while driving along the 3 major roads in town weren’t well expressed.
In general, the cameras went up and no one really freaked out too much. I was actually surprised by how little I minded them being there. The cameras have made me a better driver. I am more mindful of my speed when rolling through school zones or across the city center during the middle of the day. There’s nothing wrong, to my mind, with a safety enforcement measure that makes me focus more on being safe than on looking for cops to see how fast I should really be going.
And that’s what’s so mystifying about this recent flashing. I got picked up on camera by the Silent Sentry doing 32 in a 20 MPH during school zone hours. Like most school zones across America, there’s a yellow light that blinks when the 20 MPH limit is in effect. When the light blinks, you drive 20. When the light doesn’t blink, you drive 35.
So, the careful reader will note that I was actually behaving rather well for any other time of day. I was 3 miles per hour under the usual speed limit. And I don’t remember the light flashing. In fact, I actually remember thinking to myself how surprising it was that the light was not flashing at 7:21am on a school morning.
I was being careful. I was being obedient. I was being observant.
And so, when my ticket arrived, I told my wife not to worry. I would simply set a court date and explain that the light was not blinking when I traveled through and, since I was clocked at a speed well under the usual speed limit, it was only right to dismiss my ticket and congratulate me for being a responsible, careful, conscientious driver.
So this evening, I finally decided to review the traffic camera footage online. Just to establish the rightness of my claim. When I watch the video, I see the yellow school zone light was dutifully blinking in the far right of the frame. It blinks 2 or 3 times and then my silver Prius goes whizzing by at a speed much greater than the cars approaching in the other lane.
This is what you call getting busted. This is the mystery of memory. I clearly remember thinking how strange it was that the school zone was not yet in effect as I traveled through. I clearly remember that light not being on and watching my speedometer to be sure I was holding it under the required 35.
I was wrong.
This is why I don’t mind having cameras posted in public areas where obedient drivers can be safer drivers. Because I was traveling too fast at the wrong time of day.
I have friends who argue that these traffic cameras are unconstitutional because they do not allow you to confront your accuser. The erosion of privacy and the automation of law enforcement are certainly things worth worrying about. But I don’t buy the argument that traffic cameras are unconstitutional.
This evening I confronted my accuser. I logged onto a website and watched a 12 second video of myself breaking the law. I confronted my accuser and lost.
I won’t be scheduling that court hearing. I am mailing a check for $50.