Security and the traffic light. And the smart bomb.

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Security and the traffic light. And the smart bomb.

1. What problem is the policy or measure trying to solve?

2. How can it fail in practice?

3. Given the failure modes, how well does it solve the problem?

4. What are the costs, both financial and social, associated with it, and flowing from its unintended consequences?

5. Given the effectiveness and costs, is the policy or measure worth it? We are frequently asked about security measures that seem to make no sense. The reason they don’t make sense to the uninitiated is that the uninitiated usually mistake the purpose of the measure.

A classic example of this was seen inDallas,Texas, as well as other municipalities, when they implemented, at great cost, cameras at traffic lights and then removed them. The confusion here was caused by the fact that many assume that cameras in public places have a security value, which they don’t. In general their purpose is to help generate revenue. This has been seen inLondon, where cameras have been instrumental in helping close only three percent of street crimes, yet helped raise money due in congestion traffic pricing. While the money spent on cameras would have brought a higher closure rate for crime if spent directly on police, revenues are revenues.

Civilians in Dallas seemed to think that the cameras were intended to increase safety, rather than help increase revenue. However, when the cameras were put into place, there was an unfortunate drop in the number of drivers running lights, and therefore a significant drop in revenues. Since the purpose of the cameras was to increase revenues, the cameras had to go, a pattern seen in many municipalities where cameras have been installed.

But what about the public safety issue? As it turns out, drivers realizing that a light has a camera tend to stop immediately when the light turns red, which increases the number of rear end collisions. Thus in practice the elimination of the cameras may improve public safety. Others note, however, that there is a reduction in right angle accidents, improving public safety. Statistically it is pretty much a wash. The National Motorists Association has a standing offer of $10,000 to any community that can empirically prove that red light cameras can prevent violations and accidents better than a schedule of traffic engineering steps it recommends, which include proper signal timing, better signal design and improved intersection design. We doubt that anyone will ever collect the ten grand.

Another example was seen when we visited a building inNew York City that had “High Security.” We had to show ID, and all our belongings were scanned in an x-ray machine before we could enter. As it happened, our collective belongings included guns, knives, impact weapons, and canisters of unknown gas, none of which caused so much as a raised eyebrow. When we asked about this, we were told that the building got a break on insurance if they scanned bags. They knew that people did not habitually do bad things, so they didn’t really care what we brought in. The x-ray machine was not intended to filter out dangerous items; it was intended to save money on insurance premiums.

Similarly, we have federal policies purported to be aimed at protecting national security by preventing export of critical technology. An example of this would be rare-earth (neodymium) magnets, which are used in a range of devices from computer hard drives to the guidance systems of smart bombs. The GM division that made these was sold to companies owned by the Chinese government. The new owners soon closed down all American production and moved the manufacturing and technology toChina. Now, it may seem that the ability to make smart bombs would be good to have domestically; on the other hand, by moving this technology to China we potentially increased GMs chances to sell cars in China– and what is good for GM is good for the U.S.Right?

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