Should Transportation Officials Hit the Record Button?

I live in the road-rage capital of America. In 1987, there were nearly 70 highway shootings within a 10-week period in Los Angeles, where the average is 40 annually. History has a habit of repeating itself and once again we are in the mist of reliving the Wild West. A local newspaper reporter was quoted as saying, “Your bullet could be just one bad lane change away.”

In light of the current situation, the California Highway Patrol (CHP) and other law enforcement agencies are urging the state’s transit authority (Caltrans) to connect recording devices to the 400 or so cameras that monitor traffic congestion and other freeway conditions. Currently, Caltrans has a policy that bans the recording of CCTV video and operates all cameras manually. This has led to some apparent infighting among the agencies.

Caltrans maintains that because of the wide-angle views, video is not usable for identification purposes. You cannot see license plates, people’s faces or identify things, especially at night. The CHP claims that many of the shootings have taken place within range of the cameras, but since none of them are recorded they could not help authorities catch the suspects.

Putting aside the tremendous opportunities this decision could open up for CCTV system manufacturers and installers, who do you think should win this battle?

On the surface, most people I discussed this subject with agree with law enforcement. Their view is that the cameras should be used to assist in fighting crime, regardless of how remote the possibility is of catching a suspect. On the other hand, Caltrans cannot operate efficiently if law enforcement can walk in and commandeer its operations center for hours on end when a freeway incident occurs (remember, L.A. is also the headquarters for “slow-speed chases,” as scarcely a day passes without one).

This dilemma could be resolved by implementing a decentralized distributed video network that would enable both agencies to share video and control information independently at each of their respective facilities. However, that would require a major CCTV system upgrade which, of course, translates into more funding being allocated for this purpose.

I believe we need to examine and dig a little deeper to the real root cause of why most traffic cameras are not recorded. As mentioned, the technology certainly exists to implement a networked CCTV system to satisfy both traffic managers and law enforcement. So, beyond budgetary issues, what is the real sticking point? As it turns out, there is much more to consider than logistics and dollars.

A Department of Transportation (DOT) official from another state I had the pleasure of having lunch with about a year ago had the answer. When I brought up this topic at that time, he said ambulance-chasing lawyers were the crux of the issue.

“Not a day goes by that attorneys are not calling up and demanding videotapes of accidents, claims of automobile damage due to not filling potholes promptly, not clearing the roadway of debris in a timely fashion, etc.,” he said. “We could implicate ourselves, which would cost the state and taxpayers literally millions of dollars in frivolous lawsuits. In addition, I would have to hire more people just to research through the video archives. If we don’t have a recording, then I have nothing to give them.”

For me, his thought-provoking comments were an eye-opener, as they never would have occurred to me.

Most states have a version of the federal “Freedom of Information Act;” in California, it is called the “California Public Records Act.” It’s a law ensuring public access to government agency records, which include a wide variety of documents and other materials (print, photographic, electronic formats, etc.) that were created by a state agency and are in its control.

In California, especially Los Angeles, frivolous litigation is a hot growth area for opportunistic lawyers driven to create new theories of liability in their quest for monetary gain. So the question is: If you were a state official, what would you do?

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