EDITORIAL: You’re going how fast?

POP-UP SPEEDER SHAMING. What a cool game. So you’re doing 50 in a 35 mph zone, who cares? But just around the next curve: Click! You’re busted.

But wait. There are no flashing red and blue lights in your mirror. No officer waving you over. It’s just you and your conscience. For now, anyway.

Most drivers have encountered roadside digital displays that show you and anyone nearby how fast you’re traveling in real time. Associate Editor Diane Valden reported last week on two such signs recently purchased by the Town of Ancram. They not only display the speed of oncoming cars. When the driver is obeying the speed limit, the signs flashes a green “Thank You” message. When the driver is exceeding the posted limit, the sign commands “Slow Down” in red letters.

Does engaging your conscience make you back off on the gas pedal? Ancram’s resident sheriff’s deputy says he and other police officers have written fewer tickets recently, which would seem to confirm that making drivers aware that they are breaking the law can cause some of them to drive more prudently. But one of our Facebook readers responded online that while a similar sign used in the Village of Kinderhook led to a reduction in speeds by as much as 7 mph where the sign was located, other drivers were still driving too fast.

Anti-speeders could start shaming brigades that meet around the digital signs. They could take digital photos of drivers who exceed the limit and post them online. But who’s got the time to be a digital vigilante? And besides, that approach could be risky for you if you become so engrossed in capturing the best photo possible that, you know, you step a little too close to an oncoming car.

The French company that makes the signs Ancram bought calls them “Educational Radar.” Cute. But there are also devices that capture data about the vehicle and possibly about its owner. That prospect was raised by another reader posting on Facebook, who warned: “They’ll be snapping pics of your license and mailing tickets. Driver beware.”

That’s exactly what the government has been doing for decades in Britain. You can read about in a study by the Royal Automobile Club Foundation (yeah, it sounds silly, but remember, we’re talking about England and this is how they do serious). The club’s report examined the speed and red-light monitoring cameras that generate tickets to scofflaw drivers. The club wanted to determine whether there was a scientific case to be made for this technology. Turns out there is.

Speeding isn’t bad because it’s unlawful. Speeding is unlawful because it’s dangerous to drivers, passengers and pedestrians. For one thing, the faster a car is traveling just prior to a collision, the less time a driver has to take evasive action. For another, the speed at impact determines how likely it is that somebody will be injured or killed.

This is not news on either side of the Atlantic. But Britain, where the government believes in science, decided to use the data to save lives. The Brits did this by installing permanently mounted cameras and mobile devices much like the signs in Ancram but with the ability to capture license plate information and transmit tickets to the owners of cars exceeding the speed limit. As a result, the number of people killed or seriously injured dropped both where the signs were located and on the rest of the country’s roads.

We could wait for driverless cars to take over our travel needs. They would have to obey all speed limits, wouldn’t they? Or there might be no speed limits anywhere and we’ll have to depend instead on whatever speed the computer determines is safe. But even if there were speed limits for driverless vehicles, computers can’t be shamed as far as we know. And it won’t make driving safer.

Artificial intelligence experts admit that making a practical computer powerful enough to safely navigate rural roads is a long way off. We’ll probably be stuck behind the wheel for decades, which is why what Ancram, Kinderhook village and other municipalities are doing around the county is a good start that needs nurturing.

Let’s be a test case. The county Traffic Safety Board should apply for state, federal and private funding to install speed signs throughout the county. That way we’ll see what effect they have on traffic accidents. Maybe shaming is enough or maybe we need automated tickets too. Either way, we could save some lives.

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