Topic: Science & Technology

More Red Light Ethics
(8/4/2004)

A recent Washington Post article by Dan Oldenberg sets some kind of record for raising ethical issues in every nook and cranny. To start with, we have the questionable ethics of even publishing a piece ("Drivers Try an Anti-Photo Finish," on the front page of the July 21 Post) that tells readers everything they need to know about new products that may interfere with traffic cameras recording the license plate numbers of speeders and red light runners.

The article lists sprays and plate coverings designed to make the photos illegible, and gets testimonials from satisfied customers, as well as the opinions of some detractors who believe the products are fallible. A typical passage:

If you inspected Will Foreman's SUV, you might notice how clean and shiny his Maryland license plates are. But you probably wouldn't detect the clear glossy coating the Howard County resident sprayed on them eight months ago to thwart traffic cameras from snapping readable photos of his tags.

"It must work," says Foreman. He has not received a traffic camera ticket since using a $29.99 spray called -------.

The article is, in effect, an infomercial for many products that help law-breakers escape detection and punishment. Predicated on the assumption that "the public has a right to know" that some people use these products and that it is a problem, Oldenberg's article goes a crucial and unethical step further by mentioning the products by name, their prices, and where they can be obtained in the Greater Washington D.C. area. The public does not have the right to know that. The Post is undeniably encouraging, aiding and abetting efforts to thwart law enforcement in an area with crucial safety implications.

"The big questions are: Do these products work, and are they legal?" writes Oldenberg. No, there's another bigger question: is it right to use them, whether they are legal or not?

The answer to this question is an unequivocal "no," bolstered by the self-serving and ethically muddled rationales of the users quoted by Oldenberg. For example, a Furman Eldridge (he might even be the Furman Eldridge) defends his use of one of the license plate sprays this way:

"I've always been a law-abiding citizen," he says. "You don't want people speeding, but I don't think it should flash you if you're just going five miles over the limit."

Uh, Furman…

  • If you habitually go five miles over the legal limit, you're not a law abiding citizen.
  • If five miles isn't a violation; how about six, Furman? How about eight? Is ten a violation for you? The fact that police often don't enforce violations of five miles over the limit doesn't mean that they still aren't violations.
  • If you suddenly go past a photo detection unit when you are driving, say, ten miles over the limit, you don't turn yourself in, do you, Furman? I didn't think so…
  • Let's say the police changed the system so you wouldn't be photographed unless you went more than five miles an hour over the limit. What would you do? The Scoreboard's guess: you'd start driving ten miles over the limit, and keep on using the spray.

Then there's the argument of former Baltimore police officer Bob Kleebauer. The article says that one night in March he drove to the intersection where his wife got a photo-radar ticket. His license plate coated with one of the photo-blocking sprays, he waited until no cars were coming, then ran the light. His rationale? Kleebauer believes red-light cameras are "revenue traps targeting decent people."

"Ninety-nine percent of the drivers who get caught are law-abiding citizens who do it accidentally," he is quoted as saying in the story. "You are approaching a yellow light and you have a tenth of a second to brake or go. Make the wrong decision and they got you."

Pardon me, Bob?

  • Sounds like you ran a light and broke the law intentionally, not accidentally. Is that OK because it was a "test"? Because no cars were coming? Do you know anyone who runs red lights because they know a car is coming??
  • Is your theory really that accidental violation of the law doesn't and shouldn't count? How about if you "accidentally" run a red light and kill somebody? It is likely that accidental light running is at least as deadly as the intentional kind. That's why it is just as illegal.
  • The dilemma you cite isn't a dilemma at all. You have a tenth of a second and you brake. "Go" is not an option. This is what the cameras are supposed to teach you, and everybody is safer if you learn the lesson.

The Post article is guilty of thoroughly irresponsible behavior and unethical journalism by actively promoting the use of products that allow motorists to drive unsafely. The products themselves appear to have no legitimate purpose other than to foil law enforcement, and should be made illegal, like so called "Fuzzbusters" are in most states. Whether they are illegal or not, they are unethical, and so is everyone that sells them, recommends them, or publicizes them. As for the drivers' rationalizations for using the products: embarrassingly self-serving dishonesty. Stopping at traffic lights and obeying the speed limits are like any other law: follow them, or convince enough people to change them. Breaking them isn't an option, and it certainly isn't ethical.

So many nooks and crannies with so many issues, but no tough questions, really. Just one unethical journalist, an irresponsible newspaper, a lot of companies with no concern for public safety, and a bunch of self-deluding scofflaws, who seem to believe that they could be running down you or your family while still qualifying as "law-abiding."

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