Friday, December 13, 2019 By Jasmin Sharp

In 1987, Paradise Valley, Arizona, implemented the first documented use of speed cameras in the United States, using camera technology at intersections to catch speeding drivers. In 1994, New York introduced the first red-light traffic camera program, using the same technology to decrease crashes from running red lights. Both programs were wildly successful, with speed cameras decreasing crashes by an average of 44-54% and red light cameras decreasing crashes at intersections by 62%. Since these camera systems were introduced 30+ years ago, 12 states and D.C. have implemented speed cameras and 22 states and D.C. have implemented red light cameras in at least one location. 

However, these numbers have dwindled from peak camera enforcement in the early 2010s as there has been significant legal backlash against both speed and red light cameras across the nation. In the last decade, numerous reports and opinion pieces have been published accusing traffic cameras of being a Big Brother-esque tool that violates the privacy of drivers. Due to the extensive blowback from the public over these cameras, many cities have shut down their camera programs in the last 5 years – and have seen the negative results of pausing their traffic cam programs. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reported that there was a 17% increase in red-light crashes in 2016 as compared to the prior four-year average, showing that these traffic cameras were successful in helping decrease road crashes.

Despite the legal and societal controversies over these camera systems, as traffic deaths have held steady at over 40,000 for three consecutive years, governments and road safety advocates have looked at many ways to leverage technology to decrease these numbers and achieve Vision Zero. Recently, there has been a new proposed way to use these traffic cameras to help decrease road crashes – use them to catch distracted drivers.

Montgomery County, Maryland, is considering becoming the first locality in the United States to use traffic cameras to catch drivers on their phones and fine them for the offense. This comes after the same technology was proposed in New South Wales, Australia, to catch distracted drivers. The traffic camera program went live in Australia on Sunday, December 1 and will be piloting for the next three months, where AI will scan images captured by cameras to detect offenders, who will be sent a warning letter. 

The Australian program has suggested that using these cameras will be able to prevent 100 fatal and serious injury distracted driving crashes over the next five years. Maryland’s proposed program is hoping to be able to see similar results in decreasing the number of distracted driving crashes that occur every year and enforcing Maryland’s hands-free law, which was passed in 2013. Despite handheld phone use being illegal in the state, 38,000 crashes in 2018 were attributed to distracted driving.

However, just like the backlash that was spurred by large rollouts of red light and speed cameras, there are already opponents suggesting that using traffic cameras and AI to detect distracted drivers is a privacy violation. A spokesperson for AAA Mid-Atlantic, Ragina Ali, said of the Maryland proposal: “We’re certainly concerned that it appears that this could be a little more invasive and we’re certainly concerned about the privacy of motorists on our roadways.”

However, when distracted driving caused 3,166 fatalities in 2017, the question becomes – what is more important? Safe roads, or the privacy of the drivers on the roads? It’s clear that distracted driving is a pervasive problem, not just in the United States but internationally, and governments, corporations, and individuals need to work together to find solutions to this issue. Because there are clear concerns over the privacy of implementing traffic cameras to track distracted driving, alternative solutions to prevent this dangerous issue are necessary. 

There’s a better way to prevent the problem of distracted driving before it occurs without creating privacy concerns. NOCELL gives fleet managers the control to choose which apps their drivers can access while driving, maximizing productivity while minimizing risk. Want to protect your fleet? Schedule a demo: