Back to script!

Posted 2015.02.03 by Ran Barton
Categories: Stories

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

After graduating from college, I spent almost a year living back at home with my generous and patient parents. Despite their kindness, it was not a good time. I could find no work of interest, my friends were far away, and I was pretty unmoored. My best friend was also spinning his wheels, and my girlfriend was unsuccessfully doing her best to drive me away. As the new year dawned, I did manage to find some work in a call center for Beneficial Bank. It was in the evenings, so it did not conflict with an internship I had at a local advertising agency (full of fun, creative people). I would drive down to the office near the train station and take the elevator up to the call floor, punch in, don my headset, and immerse myself in calls from upset, irate, desperate, incoherent people. It was quite a ride.

Our manager was a man whose name I entirely forget. A frenzied man with a Pakistani flag on his cubicle wall, he would pace the floor for much of the evening. When he was not stalking about, he would sit in his cube and listen in on our calls. If he heard us deviate from the bloodless, inhuman script even the tiniest bit, we would hear in our headset his hissing admonition, “Back to script! Back to script!” I can still hear his chiding words clearly.

130305124038-tax-time-refund-loans-620xaBeneficial and a few other banks had dreamed up a very clever product, and it is one that still exists (give or take). People would go into an H&R Block office somewhere in the country to have their taxes prepared. The person there would tell them they had a refund coming, and they would be thrilled for this free money, not understanding that this refund had always been theirs and that they had simply been extending an interest free loan to Uncle Sam. The preparer would tell them they could wait weeks for their refund (this is ages before electronic filing), or if they wanted, they could get their refund that very day, minus a small fee.

Thousands upon thousands of these people, most living paycheck to paycheck, would happily accept this offer, sign the contract without reading it, and be handed their money. In their minds, the transaction was complete. In fact, it had only just begun. What they signed was a loan agreement, and when one computed the fees on the loan, the interest rates amounted to highway robbery. Yet that is not the kicker.

When things worked as the people expected, they would leave with the loan and when the IRS eventually issued the refund, it would be directed to the bank to pay off the loan, and then the transaction would be complete. Among the people who called in to my bleak call center, this never happened,

The contract they had signed at their tax preparer’s office had stipulated, in teeny tiny print buried under drifts of legalese, that they authorized Beneficial to share with its partners their name, address, employment, and refund information. In turn, their partners represented a large pool of banks across the country. The agreement further stipulated that if any of the partners held an outstanding loan against the person, that the refund would be applied towards that loan, and that the person would then need to repay Beneficial for the tax refund, as the anticipated repayment via the IRS funds had now been diverted.

Please note this was in the dark ages of the early nineties, so that the internet was not then what it is now. Beneficial’s customers were largely poor people who moved around a lot, and many of them had left behind a trail of debt that could not be easily traced back to them in their new location. What this pool of banks had dreamed up was a way of using the H&R offices around the country to serve as hunters’ blinds, and their quarry had been enticed to volunteer their information, in effect waving their hands and yelling “Over here!” to the various banks.

Everyone who called in to our office had spent their refund money within days of receiving it. None of them could repay it, and few of them understood why they were being asked by Beneficial to repay something they had not comprehended was a loan. The other people on the phones with me and I would discuss the ethics of this business on our brief, scrupulously timed breaks, and we all felt dirty being part of something that was clearly legal, but also clearly not being properly explained to the banks’ customers. I gather these loans don’t really fit the term “predatory loan” but they came mighty close, and it was an eye-opening experience being part of the bank procedures that were scooping up these people and shaking them down. I realize the money being collected was legitimately owed, but the process still resembled thievery and clearly depended on ignorance and misinformation.

These days, when I find work feeling repetitive, dull, and dreary, short on meaning and long on inanity, I think back to that nameless man, hissing in my ear thirty years ago. “Back to script!” And all of a sudden, my spreadsheets seem more palatable.

A soul with no footprint

Posted 2014.11.24 by Ran Barton
Categories: Journal, Music

Tags: , , , ,

The strongest department in my high school was the English Department. Full of thoughtful, patient, insightful people, they mustered enough patience to teach literature and writing to adolescents with great care and affection for both the texts and the students. They were also a wonderful group of people outside of the classroom, and their willingness to engage a student as an adult, to share with them the things they cared about, and to foster real friendships provided a wonderful framework for both learning and development. The free spirit of the group maintained a collection of thousands of records in his classroom, and if you displayed proper care and reverence for his LPs, he would allow you to work in his room during free periods and to play your way through a dazzling, daunting catalog of music. In the fall of 1986, it was Paul Simon’s Graceland that served as the soundtrack to our classes. In the off hours, I worked my way through all sorts of great things – some of them mainstream classics that were new to me and others more obscure. For example, Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians was one of these, and it changed how I hear and perceive rhythm and patterns in music.

Nick_Drake_Fruit_Tree1More than any other musician I associate with this time and place, I think of Nick Drake. Maybe you know all about Drake. He is well-known now, in his niche way. But when I was fifteen, I had never heard of him, and no one I knew had ever heard of him. So when my wonderful teacher appeared with Fruit Tree, a box set of Drake’s music, it was completely terra incognita. Gently dropping the needle onto that record while sitting in that quiet room opened a window to a powerful, vital new artist, and having his life’s work unfold for me as I played my way through those four records was mesmerizing. Drake is a singer-songwriter, a genre that is prone to self-indulgent, sullen youths with modest amounts of talent. Yet Drake’s fluid guitar playing with its unexpected tunings, the lush arrangements (that presumably made sense in the early seventies but seemed a touch exotic when I first came across them), and his clear, cool voice all combine to make these no ordinary singer-songwriter recordings. I listened to the records while reading the book enclosed in the box set, and there I learned about Drake’s brief career, his troubled mental state, his lack of recognition in his lifetime, and his premature death at 26, by an overdose that may or may not have been intentional. Matching his intricate, exquisite songs up against his complicated young life was beyond me at fifteen, and remains so for me now. I  do not know enough about creativity and depression to draw any deep conclusions. Yet I am left with his beautiful songs and I love to hear them – both to think of Drake himself and also to think of so many happy hours spent communing with the music and records found in that one classroom long ago.

• • • • • • •

As I commute about my life these days, I listen to podcasts on my iPod (using the excellent podcatcher Downcast). I listen to a pretty standard array of shows – news, opinion, arts. I also listen to things like Aviation Week‘s Check Six, as I have always been a plane buff. I listen to a few about design, among them one called 99% Invisible. This show by Roman Mars mirrors his love of architecture, design, infrastructure, and urban decay, and it also veers in other directions, too. I was startled to hear this week’s episode, which was a rebroadcast of a show done elsewhere in 2009. (I should mention this episode is very distinctive stylistically, and it is pretty affected. It’s very different from the style of production found in the regular 99PI shows.) The show is about Nick Drake, and it challenges my illusion that I and only I know about this musician. If you have liked Drake for any amount of time, not much in this show is will be new to you, but the interview with his early producer is interesting. What startled me though, by nudging me to think about a few dates head on, was the timeline of Drake’s life. Born in 1948, dead in 1974, I first heard him in 1986. I had not thought about that interval, but it is only twelve years from his death to the time when my teacher appeared with that box set. Twelve years? Twelve years! In 1986, the booklet text describing Drake had embedded itself in my mind as if it were a chronicle from another age, an ancient time. As I think of it though, twelve years is a long interval for a fifteen year old – nearly a lifetime.

You know that your perception of time changes as you age. You know that the years accelerate and that the phrase “a long time” connotes a different interval to you now than it did years ago. Yet there are not many occasions when you are confronted with an example from your own memory of how far that perception has shifted. Stuck in traffic the other night, when I was not thinking about merge etiquette, I cued up Drake’s album Pink Moon and pondered the sensation of time. Like an effort to recall a dream, despite the initial intensity of that moment when I realized how long those twelve years had seemed to me in 1986, pursuing that thought has had me reaching for ideas that elude my grasp. As the series of dates and intervals sorted themselves out in my mind, the earlier recollection faded away, replaced by my present sense of time and its passage.

• • • • • • •

Should you wish to ponder your own changing perception of the passage of time over long intervals in your life, might I suggest the following soundtrack for those thoughts – twenty-eight minutes of Drake’s album Pink Moon?

Merge etiquette

Posted 2014.11.22 by Ran Barton
Categories: Journal, Peeve

Tags: , , ,

I was on a highway this evening, in rush hour, driving a route I take three or four times each week. In one stretch, there are three lanes, and the leftmost lane is an exit lane to one route, while the center and right lanes merge into one lane that feeds onto the main route through town. The lanes are marked so that the right lane is the one that ends, and the center lane is the one that remains.
In practice, how this works is that the well-behaved drivers move into the center lane, while those who cannot read signs seem to accumulate in the right lane. Once they put their phones down long enough to notice that their lane is coming to an end, they often merge fairly smoothly into the center lane. It is the left lane that drives me batty. Cars race along in that lane, some of them actually headed for the exit, and the majority angling to dive into the center lane, ahead of the countless cars they just passed. A few of the cars have out of state tags, and it is quite likely they do not know the traffic pattern and their behavior is an honest mistake. Most of these speeding cars do have local tags, and you know they drive this route every bit as often as I do. They zoom past, no turn signal, no brake lights, and then right as the dashed white line turns solid, they veer right – just as you knew they would – and barge their way into the flow of traffic. Some drivers see them coming, and tighten ranks in a way that is very understandable yet not at all safe. Some drivers are literally blindsided by these cars, and the brake lights flick on as they dodge these line jumpers. Every time I sit there in the middle lane, I wonder what goes through these people’s minds?
Presumably they do not like waiting in line, but of course, that statement applies to everyone on the highway. Presumably they are busy, they have places to be, they have jobs to get to, families to care for, comfy chairs on which to sit, and again those statements apply to everyone on the highway. Do they not think of this at all? Do they consciously think they are better, their time more valuable than all the sheep they pass? Do they feel bad as they do this? Do they sneer at the chumps?
As wrongdoing goes, I realize this is small change. Most of the time, these people hurt no one, although they do often endanger others with their impatient maneuvers. Yet I cannot help wishing there was a state trooper lurking where he could ticket this behavior. These drivers are so selfish, so self-involved, and their driving speaks so loudly to their unwillingness to behave in a civil manner. When people decide to live together, part of the compact they make should include respectful behavior that exhibits the equality and respect we would all choose to have afforded us. The Golden Rule at work, right?
There is no greater point here. The world has its share of jerks, and this does not constitute some powerful new observation on the human condition. Still, it saddens me each time I sit there in the middle lane, watching the jerks get where they are going more quickly than I am because they cannot be bothered to wait their turn with their fellow citizens. I think it reflects a thread in American society that is broken, a lack of civility that is a symptom of much bigger problems with how our society chooses to live with itself.
What examples of selfishness and incivility do you see in your daily lives, and do you think these behaviors speak to any deeper trend?

Meaning

Posted 2014.09.29 by Ran Barton
Categories: Journal, Nostalgia

Tags: , , , , ,

The complications of a busy life conspired to thwart my plans to attend my twentieth college reunion. When I didn’t appear at the appointed tent, a classmate of mine texted a where r u, because Professor Chatfield was asking. Jack Chatfield is my most beloved history professor who had embodied all of the things I most treasured about my college years. This man, my academic hero, had been in declining health for several years, and I had come to understand, through other mutual acquaintances, that he was too ill to visit. “Not so,” texted my friend in Hartford, “I am with him now, and he misses you.” Immediately, we hatched a plan, and last fall, I set foot on the Trinity College campus for the first time in nineteen years.

I have spent almost a year trying to order my thoughts about that weekend. They are complicated. The weekend was exhilarating, devastating, reassuring, shattering, and far too brief. It included a visit with my professor I will never forget, time spent with a new friend, a moving memorial for a man I did not know, boozy carousing with two of my closest college friends, and a very disturbing introduction to a man whose life was in free-fall.

This post will not tackle any of the above. What brings me to my keyboard today is the word meaning, as in something that is important or worthwhile, with purpose.

When people find out I was a History major in college, a modern American diplomatic history major to be specific, they laugh. I do not begrudge them that response; I laugh too. When you look at what I do each day, it does indeed sound ridiculous that I once dedicated so much time, effort, care, and passion toward a discipline and topic that is very remote from anything I do these days. While I could proceed on a tangent about the value and versatility of history as a discipline, I will spare you from that. Nonetheless, I can still recall the energy, the sense of calling, and the satisfaction I felt studying these topics in college. Almost all of that grew out of the benevolent, productive, patient guidance of my professor, who imparted such palpable relevance to the events we discussed that they seemed every bit as vital, if not more so, than the contemporary world around us.

As one unraveled the events and motives and assumptions of the past, the dense web of connections between the people of centuries ago and of today caught the light of first recognition and glittered in a way that maybe only a twenty year old can see. Revealing the swift flowing continuum that connects us to our forebears filled me with curiosity. Seeing current events react to forces unleashed long ago changed my sense of time, giving me my first sense of how immediate the past can be. The lectures and discussions and readings from those days fired my mind, and filled me with a sense I did not bother to name then, but which I can clearly label now as meaning.

I did not pursue my history studies out of any conscious search for meaning. I pursued them because I found them captivating. I believed then – as I was raised to believe – that the pursuit of that feeling would lead to the sort of excellence and drive that would lead me to a calling. I studied history as an undergraduate with no proper sense of where that might lead, and when I closed in on graduation, I found two paths before me – academia and the law. My gut told me the last thing the world needed was another lawyer, and I knew too few lawyers to understand just how diverse that profession can be. My gut also told me that I would never teach at the caliber of my beloved professor, and I knew too few teachers (as peers) to understand how many different ways there are to be an effective teacher. So I turned my back on these things that so excited me, and sought meaning elsewhere.

Let me note the meaning I am pondering is professional and intellectual meaning. I have been deeply fortunate and truly blessed to find genuine happiness and meaning with a wonderful wife and a terrific family, and I would be lost without them. I am solely addressing meaning in a work setting as I turn these thoughts over. We live in a world where our work, our occupation is a fundamental part of our identity and self-worth. When you meet a stranger, see how long you can speak with them before one of you asks some variation of “what do you do?” Society admires people whose work has true meaning, and it also admires people who find meaning in their work. Most of us were raised to pursue meaningful endeavors, and most of us raise children who we steer towards a life in pursuit of meaning.

I have now been out of college for more than two decades. I’ve worked miserable hourly jobs, I’ve worked poorly paid internships, I’ve worked some small independent side jobs, and I have had a series of related jobs that string together to form a career. I’ve been good at some of the things I have done, and I have even been better at them than any of my colleagues, which fosters a rewarding sense of true contribution.

Curiously, the work I do does not build on any of the talents I consider to be my best skills. In fact, I have been moving further and further away from them over time, like an unmoored ship borne by the tide away from where it is meant to be. These days I am a statistician, and I am certain that any of my math teachers would have placed big bets against my ever finding employment tied to my quantitative abilities. Strangely enough, I am a solid statistician, but I bet you can guess what I do not find in that sort of work: meaning.

If this meditation has veered too far towards whining, I do not mean it to. First off, the evolutions I describe are all of my own making, outcomes from decisions made in an ignorance of my own design. Combine that with the fact that I live a fortunate, safe, happy life. It is the death of my professor that brings these things to the front of my mind. I think I have managed to forget, or maybe suppress, the vibrancy of what I felt as his student. Recalling his cadences, his corrections, his encouragements, and his piercing curiosity as we debated the events of the past, the vital, electric immediacy of that time together is so far removed from anything I ever find in my work these days, and that gulf alarms me.

I wonder if the passion I felt then was a function of not only the man and the material, but of my age at the time? If I somehow slipped out of my life today and returned to all those same things, would they kindle the same feelings within me now? Or has the passage of twenty years dulled my capacity to feel that? I don’t think so, I don’t want to think so, but is that a realistic assessment or simply wishful thinking? It is difficult to step back from the one-foot-in-front-of-the-other nature of life and contemplate these most fundamental issues.

The cat poop fairy

Posted 2014.08.22 by Ran Barton
Categories: Stories

Tags: , , ,

Adulthood involves a number of things I never thought I would have to think about. I am not talking here about the big heavies of life – injustice, disease, mortality, and the like. I have a very fortunate life, and those big issues are thankfully not what I am confronting today. Rather, I am talking about the odd things I find myself doing from time to time, tasks imposed upon me by the responsibilities of parenthood or homeownership. Last night, I found myself doing one of these quirky tasks, and while I was completing it, I promised myself I would write it up so that you, dear reader, could compare notes with me.

(Here is where I would normally insert a relevant, humorous image to illustrate this story, but I decided against that, as I could think of no topical pictures that I actually wished to include with this post.)

One of our cats has diabetes. We treat him with daily insulin shots. Although his disease seems to be under control, he still drinks a lot and pees a lot. A lot. While we spent years cleaning out the litter box in our house twice a week, now we find we must clean it four or five times a week to keep the box tidy enough that the cats will use it and also to prevent the job from becoming too unpleasant for the cat box cleaner. As a result, we are generating a lot of kitty litter waste, and it is heavy. We were away for a week earlier this summer, during which time we had some diligent cat sitters, and when we came back and placed the garbage can on the curb, the garbage men chose not to take it, presumably because it felt like we were trying to throw out an anvil.

Now that I think about it, our garbage men are very good at not taking the trash. Inclement weather, plowing duties, a staggering number of recognized holidays, and a very thorough adherence to perfect Public Works rules compliance all contribute to an astonishing number of trash days in a year in which no trash is actually collected. With this in mind, when the next week’s trash day rolled around, I redistributed the trash bags among two trash cans, feeling certain this would be adequate for the garbage men.

Spoiler alert: it was not adequate.

Again, the trash truck drove by our uncollected garbage. While we are not having an especially hot summer, let me obliquely note that both two week old used cat litter and one week old kitchen waste in August are very potent, and well stocked with maggots. Today was the next trash day, and I have spent more time than I care to admit over the last few days pondering my strategy to entice the garbage men to take our garbage. Another week’s garbage means we were now up to three cans of garbage, so I did not have another container to distribute all this stuff. Instead, I pursued an alternative approach.

After midnight last night, I slipped out to the curb with gloves and a flashlight, and started rummaging through our dank, malodorous, and writhing trash cans. I fished out the various Target bags that contained the old kitty litter, and then I began to skulk around my neighborhood, looking for mostly empty trash cans into which I could deposit a bag of cat litter. I encountered one other person, out with their dog, and I cannot fathom what they imagined I was up to. Let me be the first to tell you it is very hard to look nonchalant while strolling around at midnight with a half-dozen bags of cat poop. Fifteen minutes later, I had finished my appointed rounds, and returned home to move around the remaining trash bags among our three cans. I went inside, washed up thoroughly, and went to bed, fingers crossed that this effort would do the trick, because I did not have a promising Plan B.

Imagine my relief this morning when my wife let me know that the garbage men had come by and had actually collected the garbage. Various half-formed visions of illicit dumpster dumping and awkward mugshots evaporated and I could go back to the glorious comfort of not thinking about my trash cans and their contents, which is my favorite state of affairs when it comes to trash cans. Now I will just worry about what the next unexpected curveball life will throw at me, and hope it is as simple as a surfeit of cat poop.

That’s no moon…

Posted 2014.07.01 by Ran Barton
Categories: Stories

Tags: , , , , ,

I have mentioned my talented, wonderful pal Jason here a couple times before, but only in passing, I regret to say. In an effort to breathe some life into my dormant stories series, I thought I would try to think of a few stories that remind me of various friends. It has been my standing policy with my writing here not to cover topics and episodes that people might find embarrassing, so this of course limits some of my options, but I figure I can proceed with this one, as the moron in the following story is me.

• • • • • • •

The first Christmas after college, I ducked out of an invitation to attend a local Christmas party so I could drive up to Philadelphia and see my friend Jason, meet his roommate(s?), and admire his apartment. As I was still living at home at this point, I am certain that no matter how modest his abode was, it filled me with admiration and envy. After this, we went out, lifted a pint or two, discussed the grievous shortcomings of long-distance relationships, felt deep nostalgia for college which was but seven months behind us, and had a grand time. As the evening came to a close, we said good night, and I headed home.

The goal was to take the Vine Street Expressway to I-95 south, and back to home. Sounds simple, right? I merged onto Vine, and thought I was in good shape, but an accident had just taken place and the one policeman on the scene had placed flares across the I-95 south exit, and before I knew it I was fired across the Benjamin Franklin Parkway into New Jersey. I figured I would execute some kind of u-turn at the toll plaza, but the toll collector made it very clear u-turns were forbidden, and he gestured towards a half-dozen New Jersey state trooper radio cars idling in the cold, clearly waiting for the chance to write me up if I were to venture such a thing. So eastwards into New Jersey I went. These days my geography of this area is good enough, I’d be fine, and even if it weren’t, I would simply fire up my phone and follow its directions back home. But back in the deep, dark ages of the nineties, there was no clever phone in my pocket to save me from my ignorance. And thus I was dumped onto the Admiral Wilson Boulevard (named for Adm. Henry B. Wilson, by the way) and all the delights Camden has to offer around midnight in the depths of winter when you’re lost, have no phone, and left the house with about $12 in your pocket.

My basic plan was to find an exit where I could clearly see a place to turn around and re-enter the roadway westbound to cross the Delaware back to Philadelphia and I-95. Given that I didn’t know I could follow 676 down to the Walt Whitman Bridge, that was not such a bad idea. Still, I passed a whole series of exits that gave no indication of where they led, and so I plunged deeper into terra incognita. After several more exits and a few more uncomfortable minutes of driving as slowly as I thought safe, I came around a curve and saw a warehouse ahead of me, with featureless cinder-block construction and a floodlit parking lot beside it. It looked just like a carpet store in New Castle, and I thought it also looked like an ideal place to stop and look at a map, with adequate sight-lines around me that I felt safe enough doing so. So I pulled into the parking lot, shifted into park, and rummaged in the glove compartment for the AAA New Jersey map. Sure enough, I had one, and as I unfolded it, I could see a female security guard approaching me in a brown uniform. I lowered my window (actually rolled it down on this old car), and greeted the woman in a friendly way, explaining that I was lost, and that I just needed a moment to consult my map and orient myself. In the back of my mind, I was wondering why a warehouse like this needed a guard. The woman smiled warmly in return, and kept approaching, making me fear she would tell me to leave immediately. She leaned over bringing her face close to mine, and as she did so, I could not help but notice her blouse was unbuttoned very low. She told me how sorry she was I was lost, and suggested I come inside to warm up and get everything straightened out. She called me Sugar and Honeypie, rested her hand on mind, and her words all came out in a purr.

Now I know about young and dumb. I knew then that I was young and dumb. But I was neither young enough or dumb enough not to find her suggestion completely nuts. I stammered out a “no thanks, I’m really all set,” shifted the car into gear, and got back on the highway with true alacrity. She looked startled at my rapid departure, and waved a friendly goodbye. As I continued east into the night, still lost and thoroughly rattled, I looked in the rear-view mirror to see her still standing there. As I got farther away, I could see the base of a sign coming into view, and as the distance crew, the sign itself became visible, advertising “Live Nude Girls” in very large letters.

I had not seen that sign as I approached, and it turns out I had parked right beneath it. The warehouse I had taken for a carpet store was a strip club, and the security guard’s incongruous proposition turned out to be not incongruous at all. Once it dawned on me, I have to say I burst out in peals of nervous laughter, and only after they subsided did I get back to the business of turning around, which I did soon after. On my way west, I drove right by the place a second time, and this time it was so clearly marked that I could not believe how I had missed it the first time.

I crossed the Delaware, merged on to I-95 (it looked so welcome), and was home about twenty-five minutes later. When I arrived at home, my parents were in bed, but awake and wondering what had kept me out so late, so of course I had to tell them the whole stupid story, and they laughed even more nervously than I had at my stupidity. I also had a good time calling my friend Jason the next day and telling him all about my adventure. I think we all agreed that it was better to be lucky than smart.

• • • • • • •

I have since looked on Google Maps to see if I could identify the establishment, and I have not been able to do so with any certainty. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported about a place called Showgirls being shutdown in 1998 following allegations of prostitution (!), and maybe that was it. Or maybe it was closed when New Jersey was cleaning things up for the Republican National Convention in 2000. I don’t know.

So there you have another story to add to this list, and I promise to see what else I can come up with as the summer proceeds.

[Update: I wrote this knowing nothing about this week’s Daily Post challenge, but dear Britt pointed it out to me, and so here is my link to connect this to that.]

Wilmington red light camera update

Posted 2014.05.19 by Ran Barton
Categories: Public policy

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Big Brother's watchingSix years ago (!), I wrote about the red light camera program in Wilmington, Delaware. If you skim through that post, you will note that this program began in Wilmington in 2001, and has expanded several times since then. Like most of the approximately 300 jurisdictions that Wilmington’s contractor serves, Wilmington operates its cameras in ways that are not driven by safety data, but rather by violation tallies, as this maximizes revenue generation. Also, it is worth recalling that Wilmington does not dedicate the funds it collects from these cameras to safety issues, or even to police activities, but rather funnels these monies into the general fund.

The Wilmington News Journal, our limp and usually fawning Gannett-owned hometown paper, managed to write a useful update about the red light camera program recently, so my sincere thanks to reporter Melissa Nann Burke for slipping this story past her editors.

One interesting fact from this piece is the statistic that red light cameras have not reduced the number of crashes in the intersections where they are located, but they do seem to reduce the severity of the crashes. A smaller proportion of accidents take place within the intersection, and have been replaced with rear-end crashes in the lanes approaching the intersection. While this is clearly better than the situation before the cameras, it is not a ringing endorsement.

Delaware is home to two separate programs of camera enforcement – the city’s program and the state’s. DelDOT runs the state effort, and counted 39,068 violations in 2013, at 30 locations, averaging 107 per day statewide and 3.6 per location per day. It turns out the state has not moved or added any cameras in sometime, and is waiting for the current contract with ATS to expire in June 2014 before doing so. Burke’s article suggests no new cameras will appear until early 2015.

The mayor of the city of Wilmington has suggested adding ten cameras in the coming fiscal year. Burke rightfully notes that the American Automobile Association criticizes the placement methodology used by Wilmington, as it is driven more by revenue generation than by safety considerations. The article does not provide a figure for how much money is raised by the cameras in Wilmington.

It would be very interesting if the city and DelDOT were to release the raw data on a location-by-location basis so that some independent analysis of how effective these cameras have been, and their full impact on the safety of our region. It is hard not to conclude the city camera installations are seen primarily as revenue generation devices, and as long as that is the case, they will not be used to their best effect for the public good.


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