January 17, 2021

On the Road: The Collision Over Traffic Cameras

Hence most people support those traffic cameras perched on roadsides in hundreds of municipalities all over the country, flashing retribution at offending drivers. Or shall we say, most people support them till they get a camera-generated ticket that they believe was issued unfairly.

“We’re certainly hearing varying tales around the country of how people feel about these cameras,” said Justin McNaull, the director of state relations for AAA, the automobile travel organization. “People are generally supportive of them. However, there is a fairly vocal minority that, for various reasons, doesn’t — whether those with concerns about Big Brother and government misuse of technology, or those who have gotten tickets that they simply don’t feel they should have got.”

And there’s the rub. I know or have heard from a good number of people who have never previously had a traffic citation, who one day open the mail and see their face on a ticket, say for a red-light violation they had no idea they committed, in a place they drove through months ago. Fines can run as high as $500 in some jurisdictions, with additional costs for mandatory attendance at safety classes. (And no, I have not had a ticket myself.)

The issue crops up increasingly with business travelers, especially those in rental cars. Typically, rental-car companies, which get the actual ticket, simply pay a summons and then bill the customer, who has little recourse.

Critics say that far too often, localities are using the systems — installed and managed by big corporate vendors that get a large chunk of the fine money — as just another way to generate revenue. They say some systems are rigged to cast a wider net that includes an ever-growing number of safe drivers whose violations, if any, would be overlooked by an actual police officer.

“Technology can absolutely help make roads safer, and red-light cameras and speed cameras, on properly engineered roadways, can play a proper role in that,” said Mr. McNaull, who is a former police officer in Arlington, Va. “The devil is really in the details as to how these things are implemented, so motorists are not being set up to fail.”

A reaction has been building, driven in large part by the growing number of people who feel they have been unfairly ticketed. Among the criticisms are that camera systems at some intersections, for example, have been calibrated to shorten the yellow-light interval to ensnare people who think they’re crossing prudently when the light suddenly goes red.

“We certainly have concerns that some jurisdictions view these cameras far more as revenue sources than as safety programs,” Mr. McNaull said.

A properly designed traffic camera system works in conjunction with good intersection engineering and basic common sense, “so you’re not going to ticket the person who mistimes a light by four one-hundredths of a second,” he said.

Good intersection engineering mitigates the problem for a driver who is wondering, do I hit the brakes or not?” he said. “At properly designed intersections you shouldn’t have that dilemma zone, because there is ample yellow time for you to recognize that the light is changing,” Mr. McNaull said.

Redesigning accident-prone intersections costs lots of money, of course, at a time when localities are desperate. “In some parts of the country, proposals to initiate or expand automated enforcement have been put forward as part of the mayor’s budget package, and that causes real concerns,” Mr. McNaull said.

Last week, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a trade group, released a survey stating that two-thirds of drivers in 14 big cities that use red-light cameras support the cameras, which the survey says have reduced fatal crashes significantly.

But others say the data used to claim significant road-crash reductions is often highly selective and misleading. Last fall, an audit by the Los Angeles city controller of the red-light cameras at 32 intersections found that the program “cannot conclusively demonstrate that it has reduced traffic collisions” and actually lost money for the city, once the private vendor was paid.

Around the country, voters have been supporting various initiatives to eliminate traffic cameras. In Houston, for example, voters last year approved a petition to remove traffic cameras that have generated more than $44 million in fines since 2004. However, a federal judge overturned that initiative on procedural grounds last month.

This debate is intensifying, and I’d like to hear from business travelers about their own experiences.

E-mail: jsharkey@nytimes.com

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Upending Anonymity, These Days the Web Unmasks Everyone

Now, it seems, it is the place where anonymity dies.

A commuter in the New York area who verbally tangled with a conductor last Tuesday — and defended herself by asking “Do you know what schools I’ve been to and how well-educated I am?” — was publicly identified after a fellow rider posted a cellphone video of the encounter on YouTube. The woman, who had gone to N.Y.U., was ridiculed by a cadre of bloggers, one of whom termed it the latest episode of “Name and Shame on the Web.”

Women who were online pen pals of former Representative Anthony D. Weiner similarly learned how quickly Internet users can sniff out all the details of a person’s online life. So did the men who set fire to cars and looted stores in the wake of Vancouver’s Stanley Cup defeat last week when they were identified, tagged by acquaintances online.

The collective intelligence of the Internet’s two billion users, and the digital fingerprints that so many users leave on Web sites, combine to make it more and more likely that every embarrassing video, every intimate photo, and every indelicate e-mail is attributed to its source, whether that source wants it to be or not. This intelligence makes the public sphere more public than ever before and sometimes forces personal lives into public view.

To some, this could conjure up comparisons to the agents of repressive governments in the Middle East who monitor online protests and exact retribution offline. But the positive effects can be numerous: criminality can be ferreted out, falsehoods can be disproved and individuals can become Internet icons.

When a freelance photographer, Rich Lam, digested his pictures of the riots in Vancouver, he spotted several shots of a man and a woman, surrounded by police officers in riot gear, in the middle of a like-nobody’s-watching kiss. When the photos were published, a worldwide dragnet of sorts ensued to identify the “kissing couple.” Within a day, the couple’s relatives had tipped off news Web sites to their identities, and there they were, Monday, on the “Today” show: Scott Jones and Alex Thomas, the latest proof that thanks to the Internet, every day could be a day that will be remembered around the world.

“It’s kind of amazing that there was someone there to take a photo,” Ms. Thomas said on “Today.”

The “kissing couple” will most likely enjoy just a tweet’s worth of fame, but it is noteworthy that they were tracked down at all.

This erosion of anonymity is a product of pervasive social media services, cheap cellphone cameras, free photo and video Web hosts, and perhaps most important of all, a change in people’s views about what ought to be public and what ought to be private. Experts say that Web sites like Facebook, which require real identities and encourage the sharing of photographs and videos, have hastened this change.

“Humans want nothing more than to connect, and the companies that are connecting us electronically want to know who’s saying what, where,” said Susan Crawford, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. “As a result, we’re more known than ever before.”

This growing “publicness,” as it is sometimes called, comes with significant consequences for commerce, for political speech and for ordinary people’s right to privacy. There are efforts by governments and corporations to set up online identity systems. Technology will play an even greater role in the identification of once-anonymous individuals: Facebook, for instance, is already using facial recognition technology in ways that are alarming to European regulators.

After the riots in Vancouver, locals needed no such facial recognition technology — they simply combed through social media sites to try to identify some of the people involved, like Nathan Kotylak, 17, a star on Canada’s junior water polo team.

On Facebook, Mr. Kotylak apologized for the damage he had caused. The finger-pointing affected not only him, it affected his family: local news media reported that his father, a doctor, had seen his ranking on a medical practice review site, RateMDs.com, drop after people posted comments about his son’s involvement in the riots. Other people subsequently went to the Web site to defend the doctor and improve his ranking.

Predictably, there was a backlash to the Internet-assisted identification of the people involved in the alcohol-fueled riot. Camille Cacnio, a student in Vancouver who was photographed during the riot and who admitted to theft, wrote on her blog that the “21st-century witch hunt” on the Internet was “another form of mobbing.”

In the New York area, the commuter who was the subject of online scorn last week shut down both her Twitter and LinkedIn accounts once her name bubbled up on blogs. Though the person who originally posted the cellphone video took it down, other people quickly reposted it, giving the story new life. The original video poster remains anonymous because his or her YouTube account has been shut down.

Half a world away, in Middle Eastern countries like Iran and Syria, activists have sometimes succeeded in identifying victims of dictatorial violence through anonymously uploaded YouTube videos.

They have also succeeded in identifying fakes: In a widely publicized case this month, a blogger who claimed to be a Syrian-American lesbian and called herself “A Gay Girl in Damascus” was revealed to be an American man, Tom MacMaster.

The sleuthing was led by Andy Carvin, a strategist for NPR who has exhaustively covered the Middle Eastern protests on Twitter. When sources of his said they were skeptical of the blogger’s identity, “I just started asking questions on Twitter and Facebook,” Mr. Carvin recalled on CNN. “Have any of you met her in person? Do you know her at all? The more I asked, the less I learned, because no one had met her, not even the reporters who had supposedly interviewed her in person.”

Mr. Carvin, his online followers and others used photos and server log data to connect the blog to Mr. MacMaster’s wife.

“Publicity” — something normally associated with celebrities — “is no longer scarce,” Dave Morgan, the chief executive of Simulmedia, wrote in an essay this month.

He posited that because the Internet “can’t be made to forget” images and moments from the past, like an outburst on a train or a kiss during a riot, “the reality of an inescapable public world is an issue we are all going to hear a lot more about.”

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Economix: Big Prices Come in Small Packages

2:05 p.m. | Updated Stephanie Clifford and I had an article onTuesday about how many food companies are selling their products in smaller packages to subtly raise prices.

Companies are doing this because the prices of their raw materials, like cotton and sugar, have been rising. But this technique has been around for decades.

John Gourville, a marketing professor at Harvard Business School, said that the process probably first became commonplace and well known to the public in the late 1980s, when coffee companies began reducing tins from 1 pound to 13 ounces. Consumers took notice because the “pound of coffee” had long been the standard unit, like a dozen eggs or a six-pack of beer.

The shrinking strategy predates even that, though.

Benson P. Shapiro, a professor emeritus at Harvard Business School, says he remembers when candy manufacturers shrank the size of their products, but kept the price the same — making the per-ounce price higher — because they feared consumer retribution for abandoning the standard “5-cent candy bar.”

“There are certain price points that are magic, and the 5-cent candy bar is one of them,”he said.

Or it was, anyway.

Of course, if input prices continue to rise over time, consumer goods prices must, too. Companies can’t keep making goods infinitely smaller until they’re dollhouse-size. At some point, after all, even the least astute consumers start to notice that their purchases look weirdly small.

That’s why you often seen the introduction of a new “jumbo” size as the smallest package size gets phased out. Then, the whole downsizing process starts all over again.

Addendum: To give you a sense of how common the downsizing stratagem is, I should note that I just received an e-mail from a press representative for Blue Bell Ice Cream, which has been advertising the fact that it’s not shrinking its half-gallon cartons.

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