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By Jordan W. Charness

I was in New Jersey in November for American Thanksgiving, a nice way to spend a special time with my wife’s family, who are an interesting and intelligent group of people. We got into a somewhat serious debate about personal freedoms versus collective freedom. Although the topic was the increased use of full body scanners at the airport, as well as the enhanced pat down procedures that the Americans had just instituted, the general principle applies to just about every law that was ever passed.

In this case, the dinner table was about equally divided between those who felt that intrusive body scanning machines and touchy-feely pat downs were a violation of personal rights and freedoms and those who felt that in order to protect society, some laws had to be passed that others might find uncomfortable.

The prevailing theory that emerged, by, perhaps, a 55 per cent majority, was that, although having a total stranger look at a picture of your naked body, or alternatively having a stranger feel your most intimate parts without benefit of a kiss or dinner, is indeed intrusive – but you have the option of deciding not to fly.

The conversation then moved on to reliance on machines for screening, scanning, and deciding who would be pulled over and who would be told they were forbidden to get on an airplane.

With all our advances in technology, machines are slowly taking over the tasks that used to be done by human beings. How well they do these tasks is a constant subject for debate but from a legal point of view, law enforcement agencies are putting more and more reliance on machines to help them.

So what does all this have to do with driving? Let’s take two machines that have a wide impact on driving offences: the breathalyzer and the laser speed machine. Next week, I’ll be discussing the new laws regarding breathalyzer machines, but today I will focus on how your speed is captured by laser machines.

Not very long ago, most speed was captured by cops using radar or Doppler machines. While Doppler machines are still in use, they’re not nearly as accurate as laser machines and will occasionally return a false positive or capture more than one vehicle in the send-back reading.

Laser machines, however, place a tiny red dot on your vehicle, which is visible to the police officer who is checking your speed. Its return is almost immediate and as long as the police officer always has you in sight and is sure that another car did not break the laser beam, the cops can be sure that your car was the one captured.

It also returns your exact speed in kilometres per hour. But how exact is that reading? The police tend to treat that reading as the absolute truth and definition of how fast you’re going. In other words, they completely rely on the machine. Nowadays, many jurisdictions are issuing so-called “super speeding” tickets: if you travel in excess of the speed limit your fines and demerit points are considerably higher than they would be in the normal course.

So, what happens if the laser machine says that you were going only one kilometre per hour into the “super speed” zone? You would obviously be issued a super speeding ticket, but here’s the problem: According to the manufacturer’s specifications for these units, they actually have a margin of error of plus or minus two kilometres per hour.

So, in actual fact, you may have been driving one kilometre per hour below the super speed limit, or possibly 3 km/h above. In any type of criminal case the accused is granted the benefit of the doubt. One would think that this might be enough to lead to an acquittal because judging people by a machine that its own manufacturer admits has a margin of error might be considered grounds for dismissing a ticket.

There are indeed some cases winding their way through the courts on just that point, but I have yet to see any definitive decisions. If you know of one please let me know, and in any case I’ll keep you posted since I’m expecting to hear of such a decision within the next few weeks.

In any case, please slow down this holiday season to be sure that you arrive alive.

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