Busted by the bus

San Francisco’s Municipal Railway may install cameras on its buses to automate enforcement of laws against driving in transit-only lanes and double-parking. A move at the state level to clear a legal path for the city to start the program is now before the governor.

The San Francisco Chronicle has the story this morning. The San Francisco Sentinel blog has it as well but the Examiner and other local papers seem to have missed it.

The idea is for cameras to be mounted on  the front of buses to take photos of the license plates of cars that are in designated transit lanes. The registered owners of offending vehicles then get a ticket in the mail.

As a benefit for improving the speed and efficiency of surface transit vehicles, this sounds great. Advocates frequently cite a 92 percent reduction in transit-lane violations following a similar program put in place in London a decade ago, though I don’t recall ever seeing a solid, written source for that statistic. Unimpeded pathways are necessary for mass transit to function well, clogged streets are a huge problem for Muni and current enforcement of the law is lax.

But there’s just something wrong with automated law enforcement. Laws exist to serve the public, and human judgment must be an integral component of enforcing those laws. Just as overly rigid sentencing guidelines degrade our legal system by shrinking the ability of judges to consider the context and circumstances under which crimes are committed, so too does automated enforcement go against the principles of our system of justice by removing the ability of police officers to judge when to cite or arrest someone and when to tell them to move along before they get into trouble. People, not machines, should enforce the law.

Also in the Chron this morning, a column by C.W. Nevius about another type of automated law enforcement: red-light cameras. I don’t have any problem with Nevius and I thought his earlier series about the impact of camping by homeless people in Golden Gate Park was mostly pretty good — even if anyone who uses or lives near the park probably considered it a little obvious and late, and others saw it as an attack on homeless people instead of a complaint about the impact of specific behavior. But the column on red-light cameras seems like just a pot-boiler to me, including the requisite “the innocent have nothing to fear” argument.

As an aside, though their site doesn’t seem very robust, the San Francisco Surveillance Camera Players have a very interesting (and weird and funny) idea, cribbed from an earlier group based in New York: plays performed for surveillance cameras. Sounds like something Rebar would love.

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