St. Louis is about to get its second stretch of road where you can get a speeding ticket automatically, computer-issued, without any cop seeing you speed, and this second one is an important one: right smack in the middle of mid-county, between I-70 and I-64, right on the I-170 Interstate bypass. (KMOV-TV, "Police fighting to block speed cameras," 3/22/10.)
The first one is on a much smaller surface street, and the case that was made for that one was a lot harder to argue with. (KSDK-TV, "Speeders beware! Speed camera activated in St. Ann," 3/7/10.) The city of St. Ann put a speed-ticket camera in front of Hoech Middle School only after having tried everything else. People use Ashby Road as a bypass, and day after day cars speed by there at 50 mi/hr (in a 20 mi/hr zone), during school hours, while 12 year olds are playing adjacent to the road. They put cops there to write tickets as many hours a month as they could, they put up automatic radar warning signs to warn people that they were driving more than twice the safe speed for that stretch of road, nothing helped. So they gave up and made it automatic: speed in a school zone during school hours, get a ticket so big and for so egregious a violation it may well cost you your license. I can't find it in me to blame them. What were they supposed to do? Wait until some kid got killed there?
But the case of I-170 through the suburb of Charlack is a little more interesting than that. That stretch of I-170 is wide, it's relatively accident free, it's straight as string and flat as a pancake, and drivers on I-170 drive as close to the speed limit as any other Americans do anywhere else ... which is to say, not very close to the speed limit at all, but not at speeds that most Americans would consider reckless. If anything, speeds probably run somewhat lower there, especially at night, because that stretch of highway includes Bel-Ridge, already a notorious speed-trap town, one of the towns that are why the state of Missouri had to cap the percentage of a town's revenue they could collect from speeding tickets. The other night on the news, a Charlack official said that they're doing this for safety reasons, that automatic tickets will only go to people who are traveling significantly over the speed limit -- but no, they wouldn't say what they meant by that, no, they wouldn't say how fast you could actually drive and not get an automatic ticket.
But go back and look at the KMOV footage. "For the most part, drivers in this 60 mile per hour zone were driving right around the speed limit," the reporter says, while his radar gun is flashing, for car after car, "67, 67, 67." In other words, like most Americans, he took it for granted that the law doesn't really mean what it says, and unless you do something stupid like mouth off to a cop, the real enforced speed limit is 10 miles per hour faster than it says it is. Decent, well-meaning (white, adult) citizens (who drive boring cars) have one speed limit, 70 mi/hr, and bad people (kids, black people, people who don't instinctively grovel to cops when pulled over, or people who are driving cars that cops don't like) have another, and there's nothing wrong with that, that's America!
You know, speed-enforcement cameras are not a new idea to me. Back in the early 90s, I worked with a guy who'd spent some time in Germany while serving in the US Air Force, who almost lost his driver's license and his off-base housing to speed-enforcement cameras. He drove through one, not even noticing it was there, every day on his way to and from work, and like any American, he blew through them at 5 to 10 mi/hr over the rated speed, thinking nothing of it. 5 working days later, the first ticket caught up with him; by the time he knew what he was doing wouldn't be tolerated, he had racked up 10 speeding tickets.
See, here's the thing that fascinates me about this. For all my life, Americans have made excuses to me for why they should get away with breaking the law. They tell me that everybody knows that speedometers aren't accurate, that radar guns aren't accurate, that the cop can't possibly really know exactly how fast you're going, so you should be entitled to a slop factor of 5 to 10 mi/hr over the posted speed limit. And unless they don't like you, or are really desperate for the revenue, most American cops would agree with them. But what my co-worker told me is that Germans see it entirely differently. Speedometers aren't accurate, radar guns aren't entirely accurate, so you better drive 5 to 10 km/hr under the posted speed limit just to be sure. Germans see speed limits, and laws in general, as things to make sure they never, ever violate; Americans barely accept speed limits, and laws in general, as suggestions, as things they can frequently safely ignore as long as they're careful to stay within some imagined boundary, on the other side of the law, of "what you can get away with."
And you know what? I can think of a whole lot of social, legal, political, and economic pathologies of the last 30 years that would never have happened if Americans had been more respectful of the rule of law, more respectful of law enforcement, more ashamed of the thought of accidentally (let alone intentionally) going beyond what the law allows, more afraid of being caught on the wrong side of the law, instead of feeling entitled to go right up to the edge of what the law allows and then a fair ways over that edge, into some imagined "gray area" where they have no fear of punishment. American businessmen, American politicians, American lobbyists, American lawyers, American soldiers and spies, Americans in general who worried more about what the law actually says and how it could be used against them, instead of relying on what they think they can get away with, would have made this a much better country to live in.
So I think maybe that if you blow through 8 municipalities twice a day, going 10 miles an hour over the speed limit through all 8 of them, maybe you should rack up $1600 a day in fines. Maybe that'll teach you that yes, the law applies to you, too, so maybe you should be a little more thorough and careful about obeying it.
P.S. I don't drive, at the moment, but when I was driving, I was in the habit of setting the cruise control to 2 to 5 mi/hr under the speed limit and locking it there. I learned that habit during a bad couple of years where, due to a paperwork screw up and tight money, I really, really needed to get pulled over by the cops as little as possible. But even after I got it cleared up, I kept doing it, because it was such a relief to never, ever, ever have to worry about whether or not I was going to get pulled over. Leave earlier. Speed less. It costs you some time, but it's usually cheaper, and it keeps you out of trouble.