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Ticket ‘without a bang’

Mar 23,2015 - Last updated at Mar 23,2015

The Greater Amman Municipality has installed traffic cameras to control “the cleanliness, environment, and dual align breaches, through cars equipped with electronic cameras touring in the capital streets to capture breaches”.

The first step will see 16 cameras operating in districts that suffer from heavy breaches of conduct, to be followed by other cameras at later stages.

The cameras will document traffic and environmental breaches and send the files through a computer to the traffic department, to document the breach, and to the municipality court for the fine(s).

Somehow, on hearing about the new traffic control mechanism, I was reminded of a story I read almost five decades ago, “The gun without a bang”, by Robert Sheckley.

The story is about Alfred Dixon, a weapons expert assigned to test a new deadly disintegration pistol in hostile alien jungle.

The gun kills right away, disintegrating the object (person or thing) it aims at, which disappear without a sound. 

The gun is also silent. So, when Dixon was attacked by one horde after another of fierce-looking creatures intent on harming him, his gun kept disintegrating the attackers who disappeared without a whimper.

However, the assailants kept on coming at him, as they did not know that the disintegrator gun was actually killing them. In the end, the silent gun was useless and Dixon had to resort to more traditional means to defend himself.

The gun without a bang did not work because the monsters did not know that Dixon had a deadly gun that would kill them instantly.

They had no reason to change their behaviour, hence they kept charging at him.

The same goes for cameras that offenders do not see and only know they breached the law many days, weeks or even months later.

It is well established that the goal of a regulator is not to fill the jails with offenders or burden citizens with fines and levies for offences, but to ensure that people know the law and consequent punishment, so that they do not offend it.

Do cameras cause people to behave differently?

I believe they only do so if they placed in visible locations and flash so that people know there was a traffic violation. 

Therefore, hidden cameras will only help collect more fines and tickets, without really causing a discernible change in behaviour.

The benefactor is the municipality, which will get more revenue without changing behaviour, especially since offenders find out later, or much later, that they breached some piece of legislation.

Police and government in the US and UK have been accused of using this tactic simply to raise revenues, not to increase safety.

Indeed, research conducted in 2010 in Oxfordshire, UK, showed that the number of minor violations was the same with and without cameras, and major violations were only slightly higher with the cameras.

In 2000, some motorists challenged the procedure in the UK as a human rights violation.

Others challenged operators based on a conflict of interest, as the operator has an incentive to make more money from the tickets, especially if it starts to view this as a revenue stream — the incentive can be intensified if the operator has some budgetary shortfalls.

Also, the cameras are not infallible, as one is led to believe.

Upon a challenge to the sue of surveillance cameras in Baltimore, US, one out of 20 citations was found to be wrong due to electromagnetic anomalies. This a 5 per cent error, which translates into 500, out of 10,000, tickets unfairly issued.

The point I am trying to make is that without a bang, these cameras will not curb bad behaviour.

On the contrary, and especially if the traffic police surveillance is reduced due to the cameras, traffic accidents may increase.

The conclusion of the story would be a return to some traditional means.

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