Caught on camera

The conflict and confidence surrounding photo enforcement systems


     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.

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