Breaking the law: speeders or speed enforcers?

Recent media attention across the United States has people chattering about photo enforcement. Although speed and red light cameras (the most prevalent of photo enforcement) have been in use for decades, recent controversies have pitted law enforcers against law makers and have landed city representatives and law enforcement managers in court opposite the citizens they strive to serve and protect. Part of the recent controversy are the public/private partnerships between law enforcement agencies and the companies providing the technology and sharing in the revenues generated by ticketed drivers, legislative issues and lawsuits.

Speed cameras

Both mobile and fixed cameras exist. “Mobile is set up with radar,” Tom Herrmann, director of public information at Redflex Traffic Systems, says. “It’s local law enforcement determining the threshold speed and where the van’s going to be. In many cases there are signs prior, and since our primary goal is increasing safety by decreasing speeds, if people see that and slow down, that’s good.”

Laser Technology Inc. offers the LTI 20-20 TruCam. “The TruCam is more a mobile system,” explains Paul Adkins, marketing communications manager for LTI.

The other form is fixed. “There are sensors in the ground that will register if a car is going beyond the threshold speed,” states Herrmann. “That will activate the camera.” Often fixed cameras do not have an officer nearby to be a secondary observer of a violation. The violator receives the ticket in the mail. Fixed units appear to be at the heart of a lot of the controversy over intentions (safety vs. revenue) and purpose (deterrence).

Why choose speed cameras?

Speed cameras are an efficient use of resources, both in patrol and in court. “What this does is gives the police department an option to enforce speed and still leaves officers available to do the many other things they do,” explains Herrmann. “It’s a lot more costly to have an officer sit at an intersection for the time you want to enforce speed. If you put in a camera, you can take that officer off that assignment and use him or her in another area; you get a greater reach for your money [and] be more effective in your community.”

Courts also see a benefit. “When an officer is able to go in [to court] with photo evidence, here’s what happens,” states Adkins. “After a couple of times, [the court] shows they have them on video or a still image and the guilty pleas come so quickly, the people behind them say to their attorneys, ‘let’s just pay it.’ It helps with cutting down on court time.”

The main point: Deterrence

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates 30 percent of all fatal crashes involve one or more drivers exceeding the speed limit. The economic cost of speeding-related crashes is estimated at $40.4 billion per year. A survey conducted by the Gallup Organization in 2002 indicated three quarters of the respondents admitted to driving over the speed limit on all types of roads over the last month, with one-quarter admitting to speeding on the day of the interview.

Speed cameras assist in deterring speeding in two ways: The first is immediate. When drivers know cameras are present, especially due to signage and media coverage, drivers decrease their speed. “At the time of the violation, as the truck is sitting on the road … you slow down. The person behind you slows down,” explains Herrmann. The presence of the cameras changes immediate driver behavior. “[Speeding is] a huge epidemic,” Adkins says. “The fines are being established to deter, not to make money. There’s no ulterior motive here.”

Along with immediate deterrence, speed cameras encourage the changing of drivers’ behavior in the long run. “In the short term, I slow down for the camera,” Adkins says. “You might not see the change of behavior in a week or a month, but over time as the cameras are there you’ll see a reduction.”

Herrmann explains speed enforcement can have a ripple effect. “You’re changing behavior in the location where the camera is, but also at other places. Accidents go down in nearby intersections. We’re changing awareness and we’re doing it a lot more efficiently than taking an officer away from other duties.”


There are multiple facets to the automated speed enforcement argument that have agencies, city managers and community members concerned which includes, in particular, legal battles surrounding the technology.

Public/private collaboration and revenue Many agencies contract out their speed enforcement, some include revenue sharing, which has created controversy. “The issue is safety,” says Herrmann. “They are too skeptical. Their arguments, to me, don’t measure up to all the safety factors, to saving lives.” Herrmann explains the speed-camera business is a collaboration with law enforcement agencies, much like businesses providing vests or handcuffs.

“We have worked very hard to develop and refine the technology, and look for new tools,” he states. “No one knows the area more than local law enforcement. [They] know the community, where the most dangerous places are, and where to put the trucks. They know what their community needs and we can provide the technology that lets them do it most efficiently.”

He also explains revenue neutral contracts: “For example, if the contract calls for the city to pay us $100, but their revenue is $75, in many cases they will only pay based on that $75,” he says. “We’re not looking to collect revenue to the detriment of the cities.”

Recently, issues in Washington state have cropped up in a public outcry against the collaboration with American Traffic Solution (ATS). Many of the issues revolve around what citizens see as too-cozy relationships between police department management and the business, including sharing public relations duties and attending expense-paid ATS events.

Are they legal? Another controversy in South Carolina brings up the issue of law and legislative support. Departments need to know whether photo enforcement is legal in their jurisdiction. Certain states and different areas within those states have laws detailing the placement of cameras, the requirements for a citation to be valid and how the revenue can be spent. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) provides a good list of these.

Law enforcement managers in Ridgeland, S.C., found themselves in court and at odds with the state government over differences in opinion. After using fixed cameras on I-95 through the city, political outcry began when legislation decided to reiterate the ban on photo enforcement, and increased the ability to enforce consequences against agencies that defy the ban. Due to the pending litigation, iTraffic LLC, the company utilized by Ridgeland, could not comment.

“Those objections are typical around the country,” Herrmann states. “Our goal is to educate, so people are aware of just how many violations there are in an intersection and how dangerous they are. People need to look at the impact of speed and the impact of cameras on these behaviors. I think we’ll win that debate. It’s a slow process because those people hold their objections so tightly.”

“Communities want to save lives,” says Adkins. “When the laser came out, people doubted what it could do, but as they saw it saved lives, it became the norm.”

Police discretion One of the original arguments against the legality of photo enforcement was that law enforcement duties were outsourced to a private company. Currently, most agencies utilize services that put the discretion over whom to ticket back into the hands of the agency. “We are trying to provide technology that helps law enforcement do its job,” states Herrmann. “But they are making all the law enforcement calls. They are deciding where the van or fixed unit will be put in place, what the threshold speed will be. Once they get the photograph, law enforcement makes the final decision on whether it’s something they want to enforce or not. We provide technology so officers can make those decisions.”

Lawsuits Many agencies, local governments and speed enforcement businesses have ended up in court. The legal arguments run the gamut from procedural inadequacy, to separation of powers, to privacy to a number of constitutional violations. IIHS provides a comprehensive summary of automated enforcement decisions that can help agencies decipher legal issues.

“There are a minority of people who are mistaken in the belief that there is some right to privacy driving down the street,” explains Herrmann. “The courts have never upheld that. But people believe that and believe it very strongly, and they tend to speak out and they speak out angrily. Nobody wants a ticket but the courts have not held that you have a right to privacy driving down a public street. You don’t have the right to break the law and get away with it just because you’re in your car.”

Herrmann believes the current legal climate is positive for photo enforcement. “Courts have found repeatedly that there are no due process issues because police review the evidence before deciding whether to issue a citation. Also, courts have ruled that there is no expectation or right to privacy in a public intersection. And there are no legitimate challenges to photo enforcement technology because the components, radar, inductive loops and high-resolution photography have been used and accepted for decades.”

In a technology case, LTI will assist departments by standing by its equipment. “We have expert witnesses that will testify in support of the technology,” Adkins states.

Summing up the legal situation, Herrmann says: “On any issue, different judges can reach different conclusions, but virtually every instance of lawsuits challenging the legality of photo enforcement has failed. Precedents supporting the constitutionality of photo enforcement programs have been set across the country, including the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and Ninth Circuit Courts of Appeals. Those include decisions where the claims included violations of the confrontation clause, violations of due process and violations of the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Amendments—all rejected. The only rulings not in favor of photo enforcement involved poorly written ordinances. So, the underlying legality of photo enforcement has been confirmed repeatedly across the country. As far as returning funds, that has only happened a handful of times.”

Cameras of the future

Even as communities continue to struggle with issues surrounding photo enforcement, technology continues to advance and expand uses for this type of equipment. Recently in California, successful tests were run utilizing camera technology to delay a red light if a car is traveling too fast to safely stop. Also, cameras are being used to detect, document and cite drivers who are following too closely, which is also a major factor in accidents. “The important thing for law enforcement to know is we’ve been doing this for 25 years and this is our only business,” says Herrmann. “Whether [cameras] are bringing in revenue isn’t the issue. What they do is make my community safer, and as a police officer that is what I’m looking for.”

Adkins adds that this is the future of this type of enforcement. Speed cameras are being used all over the United States and the world to deter speeding and change behind-the-wheel behavior. “The public thinks, ‘there aren’t enough officers on the road to catch me.’ The whole point is to at least put that thought (that cameras will) into their head. Maybe it will slow them down.”


Michelle Perin, who has a master’s degree in criminology and criminal justice, worked for the Phoenix (Ariz.) Police Department for almost eight years. Reach her at