Caught on camera

The conflict and confidence surrounding photo enforcement systems

     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)."

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