Vaitheeswaran says she's not surprised by this attitude. Though Europeans and Australians have had photo enforcement for some time, Americans' attitudes about their cars and how our country structures its government presents obstacles. "A lot of Americans feel their vehicle is their private space, but it is registered with the government," she says. "There is no expectation of full privacy on public roads, especially if you've violated a traffic law."
She also points out that fears over Big Brother watching are not as widespread as one might think. In May, Public Opinion Strategies surveyed American voters and found that 69 percent of Americans support the use of "red light cameras" at dangerous intersections. However, nearly 47 percent of those surveyed believed that while they supported their use, the majority of other citizens did not. "This is a stunning result. Rarely in public opinion research do you find voter attitudes so at odds with what they believe others think," notes a Public Opinion Strategies press release about the survey.
These survey results highlight that municipalities need to increase their focus on public education and awareness, according to Vaitheeswaran. "This is a tool that frees up officers to perform other mission critical tasks, instead of sitting alongside the road with a radar gun or at an intersection waiting for violators to pass by."
When Naperville city officials voted to add red light cameras, they trained a watchful eye on informing the public. Keeping citizens abreast of the initiative began with a survey where citizens weighed in on their most pressing concerns in the community; with traffic enforcement at intersections ranking very high. As officials moved forward, they continued to gather public input every step of the way. Public outreach included extensive public education programs, media coverage, posts on the city's Twitter and Facebook pages and public information inserts in utility billing statements.
"We just added two more intersections and we've had no resistance from the community," adds Nadja Lalvani, community relations manager for the City of Naperville. "We've done a really aggressive job of educating the public and we haven't experienced the backlash that other communities have."
Redflex encourages all clients to engage in far-reaching public education efforts such as those at Naperville. There can be a backlash, admits Vaitheeswaran, but fears can be lessened when people better understand the program and what it is designed to do. "Public outreach is not only nice to have, it's a necessity for a photo enforcement program," she says. So important, that states like California and Virginia mandate a public outreach program be in place in communities operating photo enforcement systems.
Branding a program also helps build public awareness, adds Vaitheeswaran, who points out that Lafayette, La., calls its photo enforcement programs SafeLight and SafeSpeed, to foster an identity separate from the company itself. The city created its own logos and regularly releases public service announcements. Redflex helps agencies with this process by providing pamphlets, utility bill inserts and other materials to place a logo on and distribute to the public.
The National Campaign to Stop Red Light Running at www.stopred lightrunning.com also offers promotional materials that include posters, bumper stickers and screen savers for agencies to use.
Elements of public outreach
Public outreach represents the first step in helping citizens embrace these systems. Citizens need to know how the technology works, what it's designed to do, and how it will benefit their community. While public safety is the ultimate goal (red light systems have been shown to reduce accidents at intersections by upwards of 50 percent), if citizens don't understand how the system works or thinks its primarily designed to raise money for the government, it will be harder to gain their approval.
In layman's terms, the technology works as follows: The photo enforcement company equips an intersection with one to two cameras. The city sets the red light violation line, which typically runs from curb to curb. The company installs two in-ground sensors to detect vehicle presence and speed. When sensors pinpoint a vehicle traveling over a certain speed (roughly 15 mph), they activate the cameras based on the probability that the vehicle will not have time to stop before the violation line. Once triggered, the system captures four digital stills and 12 seconds of video, bundles the files into a single encrypted package, and securely uploads the information to the company administering the program.