Caught on camera

The conflict and confidence surrounding photo enforcement systems

     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.

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