Have you noticed that car license plates, which used to be simple and boring, can now be purchased with many different designs and custom characters? When I was a kid, we used to try and identify the state of a license plate just by its background and text colors. I know, it was kinda lame, but without cell phones or built-in car entertainment systems, there wasn’t much else to do on a long road trip. Anyway, the numbers were large and easy to read without any clutter in the background to obscure them, so it wasn’t terribly hard. Not any longer. There are way too many designs for every state.
You can now pay extra for designs that sometimes interfere with one’s ability to read the numbers from a distance. The colors of the background can merge with or distort the appearance of some characters so that they cannot be easily identified. Private groups can even get their own special logo on a license plate now, along with a reserved sequence of letters and numbers. Special plate configurations even use two or three letters arranged in a vertical column, which means that they are much smaller than a normal license number.
Has anybody in state motor vehicle administrations taken an eye exam recently? If so, they should know that smaller letters cannot be seen from the same distance as larger ones. But of course they know this. They are just solving a new problem. No, not the problem license plates were invented for, which, in case they have forgotten, was to identify the vehicle and its owner. The new problem is how to make more money by adding special logos and art while still managing to squeeze in the required six or seven characters.
We also now have people who put frames around their plates with car dealer advertising, sports team names, or short phrases. The problem is that they often cover the name of the state. With so many different designs, you will probably not be able to identify out of state plates, so a frame that covers up the state name is a bad idea. Actually, it is probably illegal, not that anyone ever gets a ticket for doing it.
Some people even add shaded plastic covers that diminish the reflectivity and readability of the plate. The covers may keep the plate itself clean, but collect just as much dirt, if not more, and interfere with everyone’s ability to read the numbers. You can even get a license plate cover that protects itself from camera flashes by emitting its own flash to prevent a camera from taking its photo.
I suspect that cops are not really big fans of the new license plates. I could be wrong, but I suspect it makes their jobs harder than they should have to be, though I suspect not many people really care. But if I had to identify a hit-and-run driver, or an escaping criminal, or some other public safety hazard, and the characters were one half to third the size they should be, and were unnecessarily covered up or obscured, I would be really pissed off if I couldn’t read the number.
Am I complaining about nothing? Maybe we don’t even need license plates after all. Do they really have a useful function or are they just another place where we should get to express our individuality? Not enough room for more bumper stickers? Let’s decorate our windows with little stick figures and our license plates with crappy art. When does it end? The only function of a license plate is to enable someone to identify the owner of a vehicle, but smaller numbers reduce one’s ability to do so at a distance. This is just another way in which government has sacrificed one of its duties in order to generate more money.
Maybe we don’t really need license plates anymore anyway. The government could just mandate the installation of electronic tags that can be read by road sensors that can track us wherever we go. What if we could just get on our smart phones and use a live tracking app to select the car causing the problem and notify the police. Maybe the cops could then just press a button to order the smart tag to disable the engine until they can arrive to make the citation or arrest. Or, we could just stop messing with our license plates.
Red Light Money Machines
According to a Los Angeles TV station investigative reporter, a city claim that red light cameras reduced accidents by 34% is incorrect. The reporter filed a public records request and examined every accident at every red light camera intersection for six months before and after installation of the cameras. The data showed that accidents increased for 20 of the 32 intersections, while 3 remained the same and only 9 decreased. Some intersections had triple the number of accidents after the cameras were installed. Why is this? Because there were more instances of people slamming on their brakes and getting hit from the rear.
In fact, many studies have come to the same conclusion. A study from Melbourne, Australia, which had cameras installed as far back as 1984, showed an increase in rear end and adjacent approach collisions. A Virginia Transportation Research Council study showed an increase in rear-end crash rates of 27% and an overall increase in crashes. North Carolina A&T State University’s Urban Transit Insitutue conducted a study for the US Department of Transportation and showed that “red light cameras were associated with higher levels of many types and severity categories of crashes.” An Ontario Ministry of Transportation study concluded that use of red light cameras resulted in an overall increase of 49.9% in property damage and an increase of 4.9% in fatal and injury-causing rear-end collisions. All of these studies used scientific control groups to ensure that the measurements were accurate.
Furthermore, a 2001 report prepared by the US House of Representatives found that the installation of red light cameras has become a substitute for proper safety engineering of intersections. Before cameras were used, engineers would go to intersections with accident problems and adjust the timing of the lights. After cameras came into widespread use, government traffic officials dropped the requirement to fix signal timing.
A Michigan study showed how other solutions that did not involve red light cameras were able to decrease crashes by 47%, with a 50% reduction in injuries. They included enlarging traffic light lenses, restriping left turn lanes, re-timing the traffic signals, and adding an all-red clearance interval to stop all traffic before any signals changed to green. Yet, local governments continue to turn to revenue-generating red light cameras instead of good traffic engineering that actually works.
Let’s see, we can fix the red light running safety problem by paying engineers to solve it or we can just charge money when people do it. Never mind about the accident rates. Which makes more sense? Wait, I have a better idea. Why don’t we use electronic tags like EZ-Pass to let people pay even more to go through red lights? If they are in a hurry, surely people would pay extra, just like they pay for special lanes, no? Some locations have traffic lights that will change red lights to green to let emergency vehicles pass through more quickly. So, why not put this capability up for sale too? Imagine being able to pay for an electronic tag that will change red lights to green as you approach an intersection. It will come at a cost, of course, but somebody’s got to pay to fix the roads! Funeral processions often cut through red lights. Why not charge the dead for the right to do so. They won’t mind.
The only beneficiaries of red light cameras seem to be the local governments collecting the fees, the companies supplying the technology, and the insurance companies increasing car insurance rates for drivers who are issued a ticket. Everyone else has been placed at risk.