Speed camera sign on busy city road stock photo from JaneHYork/Shutterstock.

There’s a lobbying association for everything in DC. There’s the pharmaceutical lobby, the telecom lobby, the tobacco lobby, the Chamber of Commerce, farmers, associations for counties, cities, of concerned scientists, and on the block where I live, the association of mathematicians (or as I lovingly call it, “Big Math.”)

If the Mathematical Association of America says that a squared plus b squared equals c squared where c is the hypotenuse of a right triangle and a and be are the legs, I’d be comfortable with reporters not questioning whether the Pythagorean Theorem is true. But if PhRMA, the drug makers’ lobby, says something, it’d make sense for reporters to cover it, but also they’d likely ask if some of the public interest groups who advocate for cheaper drugs have a different point of view.

There’s a name for this distinction: Hallin’s Spheres, which divide statements into the Sphere of Consensus, which are generally accepted statements (“racism is bad,” say); the Sphere of Controversy, for things where “reasonable” people disagree, such as whether taxes should be higher or lower; and the Sphere of Deviance, of arguments some people hold but don’t need to be treated seriously, like “the moon landing was faked.” Jonathan Ladd explained these further in Vox.

Image from The Uncensored War: the Media and Vietnam. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

One of the lobbying entites on the national and local level is the car lobby, the American Automobile Association (AAA). Like all lobbies, AAA has a set of policies it promotes and puts out statements and reports in favor of them. AAA also happens to run a popular roadside insurance program for car owners, just as the National Rifle Association, the gun lobby, runs gun safety courses for gun owners.

AAA does not like speed cameras, and pursues a particular (and effective) strategy of constantly filing FOIA requests for data about the revenue from speed cameras and putting out press releases which cast the cameras in a negative light and try to frame the cameras as mostly being about a cash grab by local governments.

Many reporters ignore these unless they have time to do a more in-depth story, but many simply rewrite the press release into a quick and easy story. They only do this, however, because to many reporters, AAA statements are in the Sphere of Consensus and they’d never dream of doing the same from the tobacco lobby, or if they did their editors would ask for some more perspectives.

Most recently, AAA put out a press release with a set of data from Maryland, including county-by-county breakdowns—a smart idea because releasing data broken out locally makes for great copy for reporters. This yielded seven articles I could find, by Dana Hedgpeth in the Washington Post, Nicole Jacobs and Sophia Barnes on NBC4, Neal Augenstein on WTOP, Colin Campbell in the Baltimore Sun, an unsigned report on CBS Baltimore, and unsigned local articles from Fox5DC about Montgomery County and Delmarva Now about Salisbury. Most of those are TV news, and traffic cameras make for a good TV bit since you can always go out and get b-roll of cars.

None of the articles quoted local officials, safety advocates, or anyone else outside AAA. Almost none mentioned the safety implications beyond a quote from AAA spokesperson John Townsend, who multiple stories quoted as saying $40 fines are often “enough to modify bad driving habits or to compel some motorists to drive with a halo around their heads when they are within range of a speed camera.” One exception was Augenstine on WTOP, who led with, “Speed cameras serve a safety purpose.”

While the data is factual (and thus not a matter of debate, since nobody is disputing its accuracy), many of the stories don’t give an unbiased view of cameras. Hedgpeth in the Post partly quotes the AAA press release as saying “Nearly a third of the speed camera tickets were given to drivers who were ‘caught speeding one mile per hour over the threshold speed,” and Jacobs and Barnes repeat the same claim on NBC4.

This makes it sound like most of the people getting tickets weren’t doing much wrong. It doesn’t add that Maryland law forbids camera tickets until someone is driving 12 mph over the limit, so being one mile per hour over means already breaking the law by a good bit.

All of the articles use pejorative language about the cameras, like calling the revenue a “haul” or “lucrative,” that the “juggernaut” of a program “raked in” a certain amount. This resembles the original press release, which made zealous use of a thesaurus. In fairness, it did the same when describing drivers, like this paragraph which is one of several the Delmarva article literally copied verbatim without putting in quotes.

For perspective, speed cameras captured video and still photographs of 1,555,946 careless motorists traveling at incriminating speeds during Fiscal Year 2017, compared to 1,556,441 speed limit scofflaws who triggered speed cameras in FY 2016, and 1,599,574 heedless violators in FY 2015. That is according to AAA Mid-Atlantic’s review of Speed Monitoring Systems data from the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

Some might say, “wait a minute. AAA mainly just puts out data sets, and Townsend did criticize drivers for speeding. What’s wrong with reporting facts?” Indeed, the Post and NBC4 stories aside (and the Salisbury one on the other hand), many of them just list the table of revenue by county.

My question would be, why is that news, then? Here are some facts I just grabbed off the Montgomery County budget page listing taxes, and how they could be headlines:

  • Montgomery County energy tax hauls in $198,918,812
  • Telephone users pay a lucrative $56,316,832 to Montgomery County coffers
  • Hotels and motels pay $22,632,286 in juggernaut MoCo tax

If I put out a press release listing the Recordation Tax revenues for each Maryland county, would it get seven stories? If not, why does this one? The reason is intuitive. It’s because we think many people would emotionally react more negatively to speed cameras than they do to the existence of a county telephone tax. That’s why it may be news, but if so, it’s also not just pure facts. It either belongs in the Sphere of Controversy, or it’s not news.

Why do reporters keep doing this?

Most baffling is that experienced writers, like Hedgpeth, certainly know that there are other advocacy entities, as AAA is, which have a different view. Just as someone who gets a press release about how many patients have been served by drugs created by pharmaceutical companies would probably also go call an organization dedicated to fighting high drug prices, these reporters almost certainly know they can call the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, which posted a great discussion of the issue on Twitter:

Ah, this old chestnut. Let’s talk about speed cameras for a minute. Or, more specifically, how we talk about speed cameras.

Speeding isn’t just a problem for people on bikes or on foot. It’s a problem for everyone.

But the reality is: the faster you drive, the more likely you are to kill yourself or someone else with your car.

Roads are public space. We have a whole bunch of rules for those spaces to make sure we don’t kill each other when we use them.

So talking about “speed traps” is mostly a way of saying “I think I should be allowed to drive faster in this public space” while using a complaint about government overreach to avoid talking about the risk that driving faster poses to everyone else.

Not getting a speeding ticket is, in fact, pretty easy:
1. Read sign
2. Compare number to speedometer.
3. Apply pressure to brake pedal as needed.

BUT, the persistence of the “speed trap” concept tells us something else: many of our roads are overbuilt. Our public space is designed to make people feel like they SHOULD be able to drive faster.

Speed cameras that don’t change driver behavior are an indication that there’s something wrong with the road design. The solution is not to leave the speed limit unenforced, it’s to change the design of the road.

So next time you see a press release about speed camera revenue, take a moment to assess its underlying assumptions.

Because here’s the thing: we don’t want anyone to get speeding tickets either! We want people to stop speeding.

I don’t expect reporters to agree with WABA, necessarily (though WABA is right, and not even defending speed camera revenue per se). It’s that some reporters persistently seem to keep AAA statements and spin about speed cameras inside the Sphere of Consensus. Of course speed cameras are a revenue grab — all their drinking buddies think so, right? (But other reporters certainly don’t think so, and their outlets don’t carry these stories.)

So somehow, AAA has found a fourth sphere, the Sphere of Unquestioned Non-Consensus, where half the journalism profession sees AAA stuff as mostly bull—— and the other half doesn’t see what’s wrong with parroting their claims without question.

AAA also puts out all kinds of less biased content, like seasonal predictions of how many people will drive on Memorial Day weekend and how bad the traffic will be, which conditions some people to see them as a source of simple facts, not as analogous to the gun lobby.

Pretty smart on their part!

But the solution is simple: Next time there’s a camera story, call WABA. Here’s their contact info.

Update: This article has been updated with a link to the AAA press release and to note that the quoted paragraph from the Delmarva article was copied verbatim.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.