Caught on camera

     Melissa Rzeppa, a 25-year-old Arizona resident, found herself on photo traffic enforcement's "candid camera" twice in three years. It is publicity she could do without. Rzeppa received her first ticket in 2005 after a photo speeding enforcement camera housed in a van clocked her going 46 in a 35-mph zone.

     Her second ticket happened while driving home from a friend's house. "I was driving … through an intersection that turns from a freeway into a city road. So you go from traveling about 55 mph to 40 in just a few feet. I was trying to make the light and flew through the intersection at 56 mph," says Rzeppa.

     Like many who live in jurisdictions with photo enforcement, Rzeppa is conflicted about its use. "I'm sure there are flaws to it, but both times I received a ticket I was validly speeding," Rzeppa says.

     She adds posted signs announcing photo enforcement really do slow drivers, but she also believes taking photos with a hidden camera is unsporting. "People think it's unfair and cops are lazy. [Drivers] try to block their license plates from the camera."

     Indeed, photo traffic enforcement has spawned an entire industry of products designed to foil the cameras. Sprays and license tag covers purport to increase the glare on a plate so that its number is indistinguishable when subjected to a camera's flash. Books have been written on mounting successful defenses against photo enforcement in court. And some have even more creative ways of beating the system: In July, an Arizona man was arrested and charged with altering his license plate with a permanent marker, then proceeding through an intersection with a photo enforcement system and making an obscene gesture at the camera.

     Police were able to track down the defendant. But the violator's behavior makes clear the fact that photo traffic enforcement applications are steeped in controversy. Interestingly, the controversy is as much political as it is consumer-based. Many states either prohibit the technology or have stringent rules on its use.

     As for states that do not restrict its use, many jurisdictions report significant reductions in accidents, injuries and property damage — all with a minimum amount of both financial and personnel commitment.

In a nutshell

     Photo traffic enforcement cameras come in all types, from those designed to identify speeding cars, to cameras that catch red light violators in the act.

     Other cameras manufactured for this purpose are used to catch violators traveling illegally in designated lanes; or monitor tollbooths, illegal turns and level crossings (railways).

     First developed by a race car driver, the cameras are sometimes generically referred to as "photo radar" although not all systems rely on radar. They originally photographed offenders the old-fashioned way: on film. Modern systems now use digital cameras.

     Although the goal is the same, not every system operates identically. Some systems employ Doppler radar, while others use laser pulse technology, automatic number plate recognition, pressure-sensitive embedded strips or a combination of technologies.

     A number of U.S.-based manufacturers sell photo traffic enforcement systems. Most companies work on a contingency basis, charging little or nothing up front. They continue to own and operate the equipment and process the citations in conjunction with the jurisdictions where they are installed. Generally, manufacturers collect their fees from fines paid for citations issued. This has been problematic from an ethical point of view in some places.

The case against it

     San Diego attorney Coleen Cusack wasn't at all impressed with the photo traffic enforcement measures instituted by the city in partnership with Lockheed Martin. And Cusack wasn't alone in her mistrust. Hundreds of unhappy San Diego residents were complaining about citations they'd received charging them with running red lights in camera-equipped city intersections.

     One primary problem was that the timing of the yellow caution lights was abbreviated. By cutting the duration of the caution lights, more motorists entered the intersection on the red. When the city added a half second to the timing of the yellow lights at one intersection, tickets dropped from 2,000 in two months to 50 per month.

     Cusack says part of the problem with San Diego's system was that the city allowed the vendor to operate with little or no oversight.

     "[Lockheed Martin] would send techs out to change the film and do calibrations. It wasn't a calibration in any meaningful sense of the word. They would just push buttons and say, 'It works,'" she says.

     San Diego's system employed wet film, which had to be processed. After processing, Cusack says company employees would use the images to determine the license plate information, and then access the California Department of Motor Vehicles to find out the names and addresses of the vehicles' owners, which raised some serious privacy issues.

     "That should never have been outsourced," Cusack says. "[Accessing DMV information] should have been a function of law enforcement alone."

     Those weren't the only problems. Cusack says if the car's registered owner was not the one driving when the vehicle was photographed (and the photos only portrayed the vehicle, not the driver), the owner was required to reveal the driver's identity. This not only caused problems for car rental agencies and other companies, but also raised significant Fifth Amendment issues.

     Public outrage with the system and its flaws finally came to the surface when it was revealed that city-owned vehicles were running these intersections without being ticketed. When Lockheed started citing those drivers, they included on-duty police officers in their patrol cars. The only exceptions were for officers running blue light and siren on verifiable emergency calls.

     "If these officers were found guilty, in addition [to the usual consequences of a citation] …officers were also subjected to a disciplinary hearing because the infraction took place on duty," Cusack says.

     Another big issue was that Lockheed received a cut of the proceeds of each ticket. That acted as incentive to issue more tickets. Cusack says in many intersections, between the shortened yellow light timing and the blinding flash, the system created more safety issues than it solved.

     The result of Cusack's case: The judge dismissed charges against the individuals who joined in the suit. And, while the existing system isn't exactly perfect, Cusack says there have been improvements.

     Among those improvements: Use of video, not still cameras, with the light visible throughout the violation; and allowing a driver to review the video with an officer.

On the plus side

     Sara Moya is a former vice-council member and vice-mayor of Paradise Valley, Arizona, a residential and resort community located between Phoenix and Scottsdale.

     Moya says Paradise Valley adopted photo radar in the 1980s. Located "right smack dab in the middle of a major commuter route," city officials discovered photo traffic enforcement while searching for a way to help bring growing traffic problems under control.

     "Accidents were increasing at an even faster rate than the traffic," Moya says.

     Officials were looking for a way to rein in both the escalating costs in terms of human suffering and rapidly climbing insurance rates, when the police chief suggested photo radar as a possible solution. Moya says it is her belief that Paradise Valley was among the first communities in the country to try and control speeding using the technology.

     Moya admits the system roused some ire and "we had some challenges." Initial efforts revealed a mix of violators. "We caught both locals and commuters, but more commuters," she says. Surprisingly, most drivers were relatively accepting of the new technology.

     "Overall people reacted surprisingly well and seemed to understand that the issue was one of safety," says Moya.

     Cristina Weekes, an executive with Redflex, the largest photo traffic enforcement company in the United States, says demand for efficient systems continues to grow.

     According to Weekes, about 265,000 intersections in the United States have traffic signals and less than 3,000 of those sport camera systems. Speed enforcement is also notably rare. Weekes estimates there are less than 500 of these cameras in place nationwide, but states this number continues to grow as criminal justice agencies — faced with shrinking budgets and increasingly smaller pools of qualified applicants — scramble to find new and innovative ways to handle their duties with less resources.

     As for the weaknesses in the San Diego system, Weekes says her company has a different kind of partnership with its clients. For example, Redflex has no control over yellow light timing, and the jurisdiction is responsible for being compliant with yellow light times.

The numbers in Knoxville

     Knoxville, Tennessee, situated just north of the Smokey Mountains, hosts the main campus of the University of Tennessee and sports 15 intersections that are safer today than they were three years ago.

     Capt. Gordon Catlett, patrol coordinator for the Knoxville PD, says when the city implemented a Redflex Traffic Systems photo enforcement method at its most dangerous intersections, the total number of crashes dropped. While some systems are designed to record speeders, Knoxville uses a system to bust red light violators.

     "Angle crashes were reduced by 42 percent and rear-end crashes by a total of 16 percent," Catlett says. Knoxville uses 32 cameras at the intersections, which were picked based on historical crash data.

     Police saw the number of traffic accidents start to decline as soon as the red light camera enforcement systems went up at 11 intersections in the year 2006; but it wasn't until 2007 — the first full year the effects of the photo enforcement could be measured — that the numbers really lived up to their promise.

     "Our study found that the total of crashes at these intersections declined again by 18 percent [in 2007] compared to 2006," Catlett said, adding that the cameras were installed in April of 2006.

     Catlett says the program has reduced accidents, saved lives and withstood initial criticism. The only people who pay for the program are the violators," he says. "Unfortunately, there are those people who obey the law only if that law is enforced."

Different strokes for different states

     Deciding to launch a photo traffic enforcement program isn't simple. Some states strictly prohibit the use of automated enforcement. Others restrict the use or regulate how money generated by citations is spent.

     According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the state of Arkansas prohibits photo radar by county or state officials, with the exception of school zones and rail crossings. Additionally, Arkansas requires an officer present and a citation issued at the time of the offense. Arkansas' statutes prohibit the type of radar described by Melissa Rzeppa, the Scottsdale, Arizona, businesswoman who received two speeding tickets, both from automated systems.

     In July 2008, 25 states had no state laws governing the use of, or prohibiting, automated systems. Meanwhile, some states have statutes that only pertain to certain jurisdictions. Illinois is one example of a state that has special laws in place.

     Other states, like North Carolina, Georgia and Colorado, set the amount of the fines assessed in connection with citations issued as a result of automated enforcement violations. There also may be restrictions on the fines collected; in some cases the money may have to go into a designated fund, which effectively prevents the manufacturers from operating since they derive their profit from the fines.

     States that do allow automated enforcement generally do not let these violations accumulate points against the licenses of violators. Check out your state's provisions here:

If you're thinking about it

     Criminologist and author Jeffrey Ian Ross, an associate professor at the University of Baltimore, says the decision to adopt photo traffic enforcement systems must be based on objective considerations.

     "It is very difficult for chiefs/commissioners, or those who are responsible for new technology acquisition to overcome the often slick sales presentations," Ross says. "[They] should do a comprehensive search for … all published accounts of cities and jurisdictions that have implemented and used these systems. They should also make calls to appropriate administrators to probe deeper into their satisfaction (or lack thereof)."

     Ross believes there are obvious short-term benefits to installing photo traffic enforcement. "I think that these kinds of systems can be a temporary deterrent to speeders who live in the jurisdiction [provided they] are tapped into the news media."

     Ross says the consequences will only be apparent if drivers know they exist. Signs and well-placed, widespread publicity will increase the effectiveness of similar programs.

     In the long run, if a jurisdiction chooses to go with any of the photo traffic enforcement systems, experts agree they should:

  • Make sure that systems meet the requirements of the state's statutes.
  • Research companies that offer these services, including talking to jurisdictions that work with them.
  • Give drivers plenty of notice through stories in the news media, with appropriate signage and by speaking with community groups.
  • Thoroughly investigate any complaints that the system has malfunctioned or is not operating as it should.

     Remember — the goal of photo traffic enforcement should not be to make money, but to save lives, prevent injuries and property damage, and reduce the amount of time officers spend on traffic enforcement so that they can be deployed elsewhere.

     A 12-year veteran of police work, Carole Moore has served in patrol, forensics, crime prevention and criminal investigations, and has extensive training in many law enforcement disciplines.