Photo radar program is being reined in
By Philip Ewing


Even before the Illinois State Police have used their new high-tech photo-radar system to issue a single speeding ticket, state lawmakers have begun paring back where and how police can use it.

Under a bill awaiting the signature of Gov. Rod Blagojevich, state police would not be allowed to issue photo-radar speeding tickets except for cars that speed through construction zones. Outside work areas, the only exception would be when an officer saw a speeder firsthand.

Law enforcement officials say the restrictions only clarify what was in an earlier law. But legislators were concerned that the existing legislation requiring police to operate photo-radar only in construction zones was too loosely written and could have been interpreted to allow photo enforcement on the open roads. And some apprehension remained about the system - worries ranging from who gets the tickets to whether it's right for the government to photograph its own citizens as they drive around.

"This thing is going to get out of hand. You're going to have photo enforcement all over the place," said Rep. Bill Black, R-Danville, who dubbed the high-tech strategy "cop-in-a-box" policing. He said it reminded him of the despot in George Orwell's novel "1984."

"Big Brother was in a book I read years ago. It scared me when I read it, and it scares me even more today. But I guess Big Brother's here to stay."

The state police photo enforcement vans combine cameras and radar to capture images of cars going faster than the speed limit; the images show the car's license plate, the driver's face and the car's speed. Officers then can mail a ticket to the person in whose name the car is registered.

State police have three vans, one of which will operate in the Metro East area and in construction zones elsewhere downstate. The two others will be used in the Chicago area. They are scheduled to be on the roads early this summer.

But even though the Legislature authorized the State Police to deploy their photo enforcement vans in 2004, lawmakers since then have quietly worked to add some constraints. One worry was that if cameras alone were used outside construction zones, they might miss the context of someone driving fast - for example, passing a truck to avoid an accident.

Another concern was that it sets a precedent for encroaching on privacy.

Most legislators had no qualms about the bill, which both chambers passed unanimously. But that was because they supported another change it makes: enabling local law enforcement to use the proceeds from work-zone speeding tickets to help pay for patrolling construction areas.

The plan would especially help county sheriff's departments, which usually have too few deputies to specifically patrol work areas on noninterstate highways. Madison County Sheriff Bob Hertz said it would be an ideal way to make sure people drive safely through work areas, even if they're on a back road.

"We can only hope it doesn't generate any money because everybody's driving the speed limit, but understanding that construction-zone incidents by people driving too fast are almost a common occurrence, if we're getting funds from those violators, so much the better," he said.

Another change in the law says that, when using the photo-radar inside a construction zone, authorities would have to prove at least one road worker was on duty before they could issue a speeding ticket, and they could use the photo-radar system only when workers were present.

State police spokesman Rick Hector stressed that the vans would help deter drivers from going too fast through work areas, a leading cause of deaths on the highway. First-time speeders in a work zone must pay a $375 fine; second-timers pay $1,000 and could lose their licenses for 90 days.

There are about 6,700 crashes in highway work areas every year, according to the Illinois Department of Transportation, which lead to about 2,800 injuries. Records show that 26 people, including one worker, died in work zones in 2005. There were 38 work-zone fatalities in 2004, including two workers, and 44 such fatalities in 2003, including five workers.

An IDOT flagman, Henry Jefferson "Jeff" Heath Jr., was killed as recently as last month in Pontoon Beach when a trailer attached to a pickup jackknifed on Illinois Route 162.

The bill is SB2650.