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Do the right thing not always easier with knowledge you're on camera
By Marni Pyke | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 7/13/2009 12:02 AM

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The fact Big Brother is not only watching at red-light camera intersections but could fine you $100 isn't something drivers will ignore, experts believe.

"It should have a long-term behavior modification effect," psychiatrist Fatima Ali said.

In the early 1900s, red lights were a novelty. Now stopping at reds has become so ingrained in our psyches, we barely process the action mentally, said Ali, a program director at Linden Oaks Hospital in Naperville and assistant professor at Loyola University Medical Center.

Coupling that instinct with the knowledge you're under constant surveillance and that breaking the law will mean a costly ticket, Ali doesn't see compliance with red light cameras declining with time.

"The critical thing is the clear-cut consequences," she said.

Behavioral psychologist Scott Geller, who specializes in transportation issues, supports the concept of red-light cameras, noting that when someone drives at-risk, it puts everyone else at risk.

But at the same time, Geller acknowledges that cameras and tickets are a negative approach focusing on enforcement rather than proactive education.

Geller, director of the Center for Applied Behavior Systems at Virginia Tech, conducted a study of drivers on campus, targeting people not wearing seat belts. Scofflaws were shown signs stating either "Click It or Ticket," or "Please Buckle Up, I Care."

"The kinder signs got more compliance," Geller said. "We got thumb's up signals and smiles. With the negative signs, we got hand signals of another kind."

And what about the moral implications of knowing your misdeeds are under scrutiny?

William Schweiker, a theologian and director of the Marty Martin Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School, finds it ironic that in the past Christian cultures behaved morally because they believed God was watching their every move.

Now, he wonders, are drivers doing the right thing at intersections because an employee with Acme Red Light Camera Co. is watching their every move?

The red-light camera phenomenon is intriguing because it means "people need to be observed or caught or coerced to do what is right," Schweiker said. "If we were moral beings, we wouldn't need to be coerced."

For those worried about the Big Brother effect stifling free will, Schweiker thinks the fact scofflaws are still getting ticketed "shows we're exercising our free will because we're doing what we're not supposed to be doing."

While some may consider cameras invasive, Schweiker said a society that increasingly puts every aspect of its lives on Facebook and Twitter might not be so perturbed by the loss of privacy.

"There's a deep need to be observed," borne out by the popularity of reality TV, Schweiker pointed out.

"How different is that from being observed at every stoplight? Everyone gets to be on camera."