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Beware: You're on traffic camera
by Gene Owens


Used to be, when somebody was about to snap your picture, the cliche was "Smile; you're on Candid Camera."

Nowadays, in Jonesborough, Tenn., it's "Beware; you're on traffic camera."

The Tennessee town has installed cameras at three busy intersections along U.S. 11-E. They spot motorists who drive through the intersection at speeds greater than the speed limit or who cut it too close after the light turns amber. The town has taken to ticketing violators.

The Students of American Liberty at East Tennessee State University in nearby Johnson City are not amused. They have rallied to protest the cameras, contending that they violate the constitutional rights of those using U.S. 11-E.

I've been searching the U.S. Constitution in quest of a provision prohibiting the use of cameras to catch motorists who flout traffic laws.

I think I've found it in the Bill of Inferred Rights -- the same section of the Constitution that says "the right of a woman to terminate the life of her unborn fetus shall not be abridged," and "the left lane of an Interstate highway shall be reserved for the exclusive use of those who exceed the posted speed limit."

A lot of people contend that such provisions don't exist at all. But a lot of traffic judges buy into the doctrine that vehicles traveling slower than the posted limit should be punished by confinement to the right lane. And the U.S. Supreme Court long ago gave abortion the green light with its Roe v. Wade decision. The Bill of Inferred Rights must be in there somewhere.

Officials in Jonesborough say their cameras have cut traffic violations at the intersections from 100 an hour to 30 a day. A spokesman for Students of American Liberty claims the cameras have minimal effect on violations and are deterring people from using the intersections. This hurts businesses along the route, he contends.

Committing an offense under the watchful eye of a traffic camera may be presumed to negate the 5th-Amendment's guarantee against self-incrimination. But would it be different if the offense were committed under the watchful eye of a cop in a patrol car parked behind a billboard?

The Fourth Amendment protects us against unreasonable search and seizure, and I suppose one could argue that a camera that peers into the front seat while you drive through an intersection is conducting an unreasonable search. By that interpretation, each of us is entitled to run red lights and break the speed limit when no person or mechanical device is around to spot us.

I may be wrong, but I don't believe any of us has a constitutional right to drive a motor vehicle on a public highway. The state or municipality that builds the highways has a right to set the conditions under which the highways are used. That includes the right to set speed limits, to establish rules for passing through intersections, and to monitor compliance with these rules. Without such power to regulate and monitor, carnage on our public highways would be even greater than it now is.

I would not be bashful about passing under Jonesborough's cameras, assuming the city is reasonable in enforcing its laws. Town administrator Bob Browning says the town won't prosecute you for entering the intersection while the light is yellow. But if your front-end crosses the stop bar after the light turns red, you could be fined. That seems reasonable to me. The amber signal means that you should stop if you can do so safely -- without throwing somebody through the windshield or inviting a rear-end collision by a speeding semi. It doesn't mean that you should speed up to try to beat the light.

Browning says the town allows 10 mph of grace when it comes to the speed limit. The speed limit at each of those intersections is 45 mph. If the camera clocks you at 55, you're OK. If it clocks you at 56, you could get a ticket. The line has to be drawn somewhere.

I suppose some folks could argue that their car is their temporary home, and nobody has a right to peer into it without first obtaining permission. But unless you're using heavily tinted glass -- illegal in some states -- your car is open to public gaze. If the city is spreading your front-seat picture across the Internet for purposes of titillation, you may have grounds for complaint. But if it's simply monitoring your compliance with traffic laws, it's part of the price you pay for the privilege of driving on public thoroughfares.

So here's what I suggest for those who fear that the camera will portray them in an embarrassing light:

Dress for the road the way you would dress for the mall or the street, or to answer the doorbell. Make sure your hair is combed, your grooming is presentable and your attire meets your standards of modesty.

Drive reasonably close to the speed limit. If the limit is 45, try to keep it under 50.

If the light turns amber ahead of you, it's giving you five seconds to stop. In that time, if you're traveling 45 mph, you'll travel 330 feet -- a little more than the length of a football field. If you're farther away than that, hit the brake. If you're doing 55, you'll travel just over 400 feet in five seconds. If you're farther away from the intersection than that, play it safe and stop.

If you run a red light while somebody else is coming through on a green light, you may be violating somebody else's inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And you may be getting yourself into a predicament a constitutional lawyer can't get you out of.

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Gene Owens has been around the Southern journalistic scene for 48 years. He has been senior associate editor of The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., and editorial-page editor of the Roanoke Times in Roanoke, Va.

As senior editor for Creative Services, a management consulting firm in High Point, N. C., he ghosted more than a dozen published books for professional clients. For the past nine years he has been assistant managing editor, political editor and columnist for the Mobile Register. Register readers named him their favorite local columnist, and readers of the independent regional magazine, Bay Weekly, agreed. He was runner-up in the regional Green Eyeshades competition among writers of humor columns.

He has been on the board of directors of the National Conference of Editorial Writers and was editor of The Masthead, the NCEW’s national quarterly. He is in semi-retirement in Anderson, S. C.


Read more of Gene's entertaining columns:
Polaroid fades into history
A Tribute to Johnny Cash
Roy Moore at the Courthouse Door
All about Gene and Greasepit Grammar
Greasepit Grammar: Misplaced modifiers
Greasepit Grammar: Inertia can get you
Greasepit Grammar: Drinking and dranking
Greasepit Grammar: A Pronominal grand slam
The Wal-Mart Paradox
Taking a week off from retirement to do nothing
Raspberry ants are coming
Flocking South with the snowbirds
Juicy Fruit will gum up the mole works
Dan Rather and the Texas truth
Putting on the dog!
The scars turned to flowers
If only our forefathers had used attack ads
Decent 'dogs
Thoughts from the Southern road
Sic the goats on your kudzu

Write Gene Owens at 317 Braeburn Drive, Anderson SC 29621 or e-mail him at WadesDixieCo@aol.com
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