My little corner of the world is a spaghetti bowl of winding two-lane country roads, the sort of meandering double-yellow blacktops adored by Autumn leaf-peepers and car commercial producers. Those twists and turns also make great defilade for speed-trapping police cars: Come ‘round the bend with a shade too much speed, ah shit.
This is where the high-beam flip comes in handy.
The high-beam flip came into common usage in the 1970s, when new steering column configurations incorporated a stem control which allowed drivers to easily and quickly switch from regular headlights to high beams and back again; before the design change, you turned on your high beams with a switch on the floor by the pedals.
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The trick is simple: Pass a cop parked for a speed trap, and flip your high beams on and off at oncoming cars to warn them. If, like me, you believe that speed traps are dangerous because they make people abruptly slam on the brakes, and if you also believe pushback against authority is a healthy necessity in any free society, the beam flip is for you.
Hell, when you think about it, you’re doing the cop’s job by getting drivers to slow down when you flip the beams, and without costing those drivers a cent or subjecting them to a potentially menacing encounter with an armed officer. The beam flip is a service to your neighbors as purely American as the Grateful Dead and N.W.A. It is also a First Amendment right in several states.
A few days ago, a friend was driving around running some errands when her smartphone chirped at her. It was Google Maps warning her that a speed trap was up ahead. No beam flip required. As it turns out, this is now a thing not just in the U.S., but around the world.
“The company confirmed the news to TechCrunch after reports of international rollouts surfaced on Reddit in recent weeks,” reports Catie Keck for Gizmodo. “Google Maps began displaying the alerts to some users back in January, and in March, reports for speed traps began seeing a wider rollout. Now, it looks like the company is committing to the features that were not previously available in all of Google’s international markets.”
To the surprise of none, police are not enthusiastic about this development. Google was already getting static from authorities over Waze, the GPS app Google owns which warns drivers of DUI checkpoints. With the new Google Maps function, the company has broadened the scope of the information they provide to customers, essentially putting a blinking pin in the location of every known speed trap on the roads.
There is no lack of irony to be found in the fact that Google — creator of perhaps the most insidiously pervasive surveillance system in human history — is sticking a technological thumb in the eye of the cops. At this point, however, any pushback against the total surveillance state is welcome news in a world where artists are detained and interrogated for taking pictures of the cameras taking pictures of them.
“There are an estimated 30 million surveillance cameras now deployed in the United States shooting 4 billion hours of footage a week,” reported Popular Mechanics 10 years ago. Five years later, according to The New York Times, “there were 245 million professionally installed surveillance cameras around the world.” Today, five years later, they’re talking about 30,000 spy cameras in the city of Chicago alone.
The Cameras Everywhere craze came to full bloom after September 11, when fear of the “other” transformed into fear of everything. This fear was fed and nurtured through the oppressive onslaught of cynical politicians and ratings-hungry news networks. Recently, however, cities have begun to flip their own high beams at the eyes that never blink.
“In 2013, Seattle police installed surveillance cameras and a network that could track wireless devices throughout downtown,” reported The Seattle Times in February of 2018. The network “had the potential to track and log every wireless device that moved through its system: people attending protests, people getting cups of coffee, people going to a hotel in the middle of the workday…. After unwanted publicity, they turned it off. Now the city is paying $150,000 to physically tear it down.”
Earlier this month, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to ban the use of camera-driven facial recognition software by police and other authorities within the city limits. The order cited the software as being offensive to the First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, as well as to Article I of the California Constitution.
“Surveillance efforts have historically been used to intimidate and oppress certain communities and groups more than others,” reads the order, “including those that are defined by a common race, ethnicity, religion, national origin, income level, sexual orientation or political perspective. The propensity for facial recognition technology to endanger civil rights and civil liberties substantially outweighs its purported benefits, and the technology will exacerbate racial injustice and threaten our ability to live free of continuous government monitoring.”
My beloved San Francisco may be collapsing into a hyper-expensive tech-bro monoculture hellscape, but it sure got this one right. The country, and the world, are almost 20 years older and wiser than they were in 2001, when the idea of hanging a surveillance camera on every light pole seemed reasonable because the nightly news said terrorists were hiding under your bed and the “Terror Warning” was always about to go red.
We were badly used by the fearmongers then, and the totality of this technology today allows the authorities, in the proper environment, to watch every move and transaction we make. They could never credibly film “The Fugitive” today because everyone knows Harrison Ford would be in handcuffs before the butter on your popcorn got cold.
The potential for abuse is manifest, especially given the current paranoid, racist, govern-by-grudge occupant of the White House. Surveillance cameras, like their analog cousin the speed trap, are a means of control. If we are to be free within and without our person, the total surveillance state must be dismantled. Reasonable security measures have merit. Living in a fishbowl is not reasonable at all.
In the end, it’s all about flippin’ those high beams.