Speed Cameras and Moral Culture
Religion & Liberty Online

Speed Cameras and Moral Culture

In an odd story from Maryland, Ari Ashe of WTOP reports,

Many people find speed cameras frustrating, and some in the region are taking their rage out on the cameras themselves.

But now there’s a new solution: cameras to watch the cameras.

Yes, you read that correctly. Prince George’s County, Maryland, has a problem with people vandalizing their speed cameras and their solution is to install additional cameras to watch them. In response, Michael Rosenwald says what many others surely are thinking: “This is 100 percent ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ crazy.”

Permit me, however, to begin by being as charitable as possible. According to Ashe,

Since April, six people have damaged speed cameras.

On April 6, someone pulled a gun out and shot a camera on the 11400 block of Duley Station Road near U.S. 301 in Upper Marlboro, Md.

Two weeks later, a speed camera was flipped over at 500 Harry S. Truman Drive, near Prince George’s Community College. Police believe several people were involved because of the weight of the camera itself.

Then in May, someone walked up to a camera on Brightseat Road near FedEx Field, cut off one of the four legs, and left.

“I guess that makes a statement, but we were able to just attach another leg,” says [Police Maj. Robert V.] Liberati.

But when someone burned down a speed camera on Race Track Road near Bowie State College on July 3, Liberati and his colleagues began to rethink their strategy.

This is certainly a serious problem. Whether or not one has any objection to speed cameras in the first place, these acts of vandalism, however humorous (a speed camera on “Race Track Road”?), reveal a serious moral dearth in the vandals, possibly even the larger community. According to Liberati, reports Ashe, “The roads are choked, there are lots of drivers on them. I think traffic itself is the cause of frustration (towards speed cameras).”

The speed cameras were installed in the first place in order to “keep the public safe from reckless drivers.” Certainly a noble goal. But local authorities feel that additional cameras are needed because “under Maryland law speed cameras can only take pictures of speeding” and cannot, therefore, be employed for security purposes. Hence, the “need” to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for other cameras.

But what causes the reckless driving? And what is causing the vandalism? Lack of cameras? I don’t think so. As Edmund Burke put it,

Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites…. Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.

The real need here is for people to cultivate a better moral culture in which restraining one’s own passions is taught, modeled, practiced, and encouraged. We may laugh or shake our heads about Prince George’s County, but better than justifying ourselves by comparison to them would be to ask ourselves how our own passions are forging our own fetters. We must remember that, to quote Lord Acton, freedom “is the delicate fruit of a mature civilization.” The root of such a freedom-bearing tree of civilization is the moral ecology of a society. Again, part of the problem may be the moral confusion of others, but we would do well to look first to ourselves and our communities lest a plank in our own eye prevent us from removing the speck in someone else’s. Until such moral cultivation becomes a greater priority in civil society (families, religious centers, schools, etc.), people ought to expect greater restraints upon their freedom from the state.

Furthermore, given the cost of such external restraints, I would add that we face an additional economic need for greater internal constraint if we hope for our government to be able to cut back on spending and embrace greater fiscal responsibility. A moral dearth in society leads to greater need for government spending to restrain the consequences as a matter of justice, necessarily requiring a greater drain on the economy to finance the cost. Perhaps one could still complain that cameras (and cameras to watch cameras) are not the most effective way to ensure such justice, but it would be better if such a need did not exist in the first place.

Cameras to watch cameras… coming to a community near you?

Dylan Pahman

Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in historical theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.