John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, and now at

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Slow down or pay up

I blame the TV commercials for automobiles.

They all show an individual car — your dream car, your elegant personal machine, your guarantee of synthetic masculinity — roaring along the highway in solitary splendor.

In reality, of course, you will be driving on an interstate at 20 mph, hemmed in by equally frustrated fellow motorists. But the commercial, the dream, tells you that because you own a machine that can do better than 90, you have a right to do so.

So when you do get a chance, you rev up to 60, 70, 80, 90, veering from one lane to another to whiz pass the slowpokes because the machine is yours and so is the road.

I believe that you may be the audience for an article in The Washington Post by Neely Tucker, whom an editor has evidently encouraged to write with Attitude. The article describes, indulgently, your rage at those speed cameras municipalities put up to fine you for driving at 50 mph past a schoolhouse. The impertinence, the gall of these bureaucrats to limit your freedom to treat a city street as an autobahn, and the greediness to make you pay when you do.

For my part, fussy old bourgeois that I am, driving a mere Chevy and pretty much staying within a few of miles of the speed limit, I wouldn’t mind seeing more cameras. I would have liked to see the driver who sailed through a red light at Hamilton and Harford while gabbing on a cell phone, nearly striking my son and me,* pay a fine. I think that the driver in the black Mercedes who sped down Virginia Avenue in Towson and ran the stop sign as I was making a turn one Sunday ought to have to write a check.

The interstate is worse, with all the cowboys and cowgirls whose lives are so much more important than mine going 20 and 30 miles above the speed limit on their urgent errands. There is no chance that the state will ever be able to hire enough police officers to curb them. Better to put up cameras.

Oh, and the objection that municipalities make money off those fines? Don’t you think that maybe people who break the law are an apt source of revenue?

*And I had observed the standard Baltimore pause after my light changed to green to avoid that very hazard.


  1. There's a pervasive belief that speeding is a victimless crime and people shouldn't have to pay for it.

    Until someone who's counting on them driving at the speed limit gets killed, of course. Then we're outraged.

  2. I couldn't agree more!

    Towson Resident

  3. 1. On the cameras, my objection is constitutional; I have a right to confront my accuser. I can confront an officer in court. If I try to confront a camera, I will be hauled off to the loony bin.
    2. On a completely unrelated topic, but perhaps of interest: The American Psychological Association has agreed to replace the error-riddled first-printing copies of its 6th edition style guide with free second printings, in which all errors (are believed to) have been corrected. However, you must return your first-printing copy by December 15. Postage will be paid by APA.

    A Facebook group called Boycott the APA Manual ( has good information on its site, including (from John on October 30 at 3:44 p.m.) a detailed response from APA. As you can imagine, phone lines are overwhelmed, so keep trying.

  4. To Loretta: A photograph is not an accuser. It is evidence. Slow down!

  5. I agree on the constitutional issue with cameras. There's also a practical aspect: corrupt money-starved governments could rig the light timing so it goes from green to yellow to red while you're going through the intersection. Result: a ticket you can't argue against unless you know the light timing. If you think this scenario is unlikely, consider this. When I worked in D.C., the city government placed a parking meter too close to a stop sign. A driver argued that the city placed the meter there, so how could it then ticket him for parking too close to a stop sign. The judge let the ticket stand.

  6. Jim Sweeney, I had a physics teacher who helped us figure out the "dilemma zone" for any intersection, using the speed limit, minimum stopping lengths at that speed, and yellow light timings. Even in 1974, there were some lights where you could not avoid running a red light if you were traveling the speed limit and got to the light at the wrong moment.

    In other words, there's nothing new here. If there are intersections like that that you know of, talk to traffic control before you get a ticket, and approach the long green with extreme caution.

    If you're actually claiming the speed/light camera can control the intersection light, then I believe the traffic control center has a nice long explanation for you about the wires that go from the pole to the light.

    Anyway. The dilemma zone is why I like the pedestrian countdown crossing lights that let you know when a yellow is about to occur. Probably saved me from some red-light tickets at President and Fayette.

    Maybe that kind of display would be useful for these devices.

    But I don't have much pity on speeders, people who thought they were getting away with something and found out they weren't. Driving a car isn't a right, as unfortunate as that is in this city with totally crappy public transportation.

  7. It's interesting how driving habits can vary so much from city to city. In Philly, no more than 100 miles up I-95, the custom is to start going an instant BEFORE the light turns green. Also, on the highways around Baltimore, there are many more slow drivers in the left lane.

  8. Patricia the TerseNovember 5, 2009 at 6:52 PM

    Although I'm not fond of lunatics who run lights, race through STOP signs et alii, I think that you drive a Chevrolet (ancient and venerable no doubt) bespeaks volumes. I'd like to hear from a Ferrari driver, who has actually driven the Autostrada. The rest of you, slow down anyway. As to cameras, I'm of two minds: they are in public places,where there is no expectation of privacy, but there is also the aforementioned rigging of lights and the omnipresent greed of cities who can not or will not balance their budgets. Cameras are just another way to grap taxpayer money without actually raising taxes, which would jeopardize the re-election chances of the City Worthies (some of whom are currently under indictments, again).

  9. To Thomas: Who, me?!
    I am very careful on surface streets, but on our highways if you go the limit you get runned over. (Sorry for the deliberate ungrammaticism, Mr. McIntyre--if I say it's idiomatic may I still read your site?)

  10. Traffic cameras snap as you enter, as I understand it. Not as you leave.

  11. Loretta & Jim:
    As the Jim Carey lawyer-character in "Liar Liar" said to the mugger who phoned him for legal advice: "Stop breakin' the law, ---hole!!"

    Substitute any other crime--rape, robbery, assault--for speeding, and you'd get no argument from the constitutional rights faction as to what makes evidence.

    Tim: I agree. SLOW DOWN.

  12. Ridger--
    Trust me, the camera snaps when you are exiting the intersection after the light has gone from yellow to red. Otherwise, that nice clear picture of my license plate I received a while back would have been of the front of my car...

    They sell a can some stuff you can spray on your rear plate that causes the camera's flash to flare out your license plate numbers. I'm not sure if it's illegal or not, but probably will become so, just like radar detectors.

  13. Crap. I meant as you exit. I know that - states that don't have front license plates use cameras.

    My point - since you couldn't tell from my mangled post - was what color the light was when you left the intersection is what gets you the ticket. And I was taught not to enter the intersection on a yellow.

  14. Ridger, don't confuse the camera with the sensors that drive it. The sensors [should] detect whether you entered the intersection on the red light. If you do, then the camera snaps a picture of your rear license plate as you exit the intersection. If you're curious as to whether your city has set it up properly, sit and film such an intersection for an hour or two. If it really is working unfairly, your video would be compelling evidence to support your contention.

    Loretta, if you really are prone to being overrun on the freeway, then you would like the result of photo enforcement of speed limits. I visited family in Portland earlier this summer. One of their suburbs uses photo enforcement of speed limits. The section of freeway through that suburb has the safest, sanest driving I have seen in my life. No one speeds. Because no one speeds, no one is intimidated into slowing down. The cars flow at one velocity, evenly spaced. People who need to change lanes tend to slow a bit, not accelerate, to align themselves with a gap. In short, it works.

    Of course, the cheaper, but far less effective, way to reach the same goal is for people who do speed to quit speeding. Nothing I've read in the Constitution says they can't go the same speed as the rest of us.

  15. Of course the real test of whether you're pushing it through the "pink" lights is the day you get t-boned by a car coming through the intersection on the green. If you survive, no insurance company in the world will touch you after that. So maybe it is a form of natural selection.

  16. I was particularly fond of the German system of traffic signals when I was stationed there in the Army many years ago: the yellow light came on a few moments before the red light turned to green. I'm told this was to allow you to switch your engine back on in time for the green light after you had switched it off during the red--a gas-saving measure. But motorists almost always left their engines running while stopped at the red and stomped on the pedal as soon as the yellow came on. There was a room in our barracks next to a well-traveled intersection (I think it was Stadelheimer Strasse and Tegernseer Landstrasse in Munich) where you could count on hearing a loud crash if you sat for any length of time.

    And there were no speed limits on the Autobahn. The rule of the road was: the more expensive car has the right of way. I know this from having dared to drive a VW Beetle--a ten-year-old one with an eleven-year-old engine--on the Autobahn. Whenever I was tried to pass one of those glacially slow trucks that seemed to be a mile long, a Mercedes would come zooming up behind me angrily flashing its lights, as if I could somehow pull back into the right lane immediately and occupy the same space as the truck.