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March 7, 2010

News & Features

As more red-light cameras go up, one Seattleite makes a case for giving in

Special to NWautos

Red light

(Illustration by Katie Miller)

An unwelcome envelope recently landed on my desk. Inside were incriminating, time-lapse photos of what appeared to be me committing a crime. There I was -- my car, anyway -- running a red light, caught red-handed. I felt dirty. I felt spied upon. I felt like a teenager caught in a lie by my parents.

In fact, receiving that ticket from the city of Seattle -- issued after, in my opinion, I squeaked through a stale yellow at the corner of 15th Avenue and Market Street in Ballard -- reminded me of the time my mom found one of those skinny brown bags from the liquor store under the seat of her car the day after I borrowed it. I said it was from a sub shop. She pulled out the state liquor registration label that had fallen off the booze bottle. Gotcha!

Is there anything worse than being caught in a blatant lie? Oh, the shame. Perhaps this is why I have such a negative emotional response to the ever-growing number of red-light cameras monitoring intersections all over the region. (The latest went up in Bellevue last month.)

What do you think of red light cameras?

The cameras are confrontational. There's no small talk. They don't ask, "Sir, do you know why I stopped you?" They dispense with the niceties and tell you, point-blank: "You're busted." Red-light cameras don't just cut to the chase; they eliminate it entirely.

It's amazing what a surprise photo of yourself running a red light and a $75 ticket can do to influence your approach to an intersection.

That corner in Ballard is part of my daily commute. Now when I sit there I notice that those camera lights flash so much you'd think George Clooney was in the crosswalk being pursued by paparazzi. Ironically, it's distracting enough to be a potential safety hazard.

Some -- myself included, depending on the day -- may say it's the principle of the matter. That the cameras are gratuitous, revenue-generating devices dressed up in public-safety clothes hurling hidden taxes at ordinary citizens. There are pending lawsuits and legislation to limit the fines.

But in a hurry-up world where many people consider "Make the light, make the light" a personal mantra, yellow is the new red for me. This has changed my life behind the wheel, maybe even extended it.

Red light

A sign warns of the red light cameras on the corner of 15th Avenue and Market Street in Ballard. (Sean O'Connor)

No more dodging pedestrians in crosswalks or getting caught in an intersection when the opposing light turns green. Now I typically slow to a stop, sip some coffee, open the window for my dog and wave to the angry guy behind me who hoped we would both squeak through that yellow light.

I mean, where is it I'm going in such a hurry? I don't wear a uniform, there are no flashing lights on the roof of my car and I'm not a doctor. Oh, yeah: I'm a writer on my way to a grammatical emergency -- there's some noun/verb agreement that needs attending to. Get out of my way!

Most of the driving we do takes place within the context of the honor system. There just aren't enough cops in the world to monitor the miles and miles of highway upon which we speed, pass, or park -- legally or otherwise.

In a carrots-and-sticks world, the "Gotcha!" photo in the mailbox is a pretty big stick. So until they devise a system of carrots where you get credit for slowing and stopping at a yellow, I suggest you keep your eyes on the road -- because the road is definitely keeping its eyes on you.

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