Cities monitor Beverly Hills effort to get photo-radar
By Steve Hymon
Los Angeles Times
Article Launched: 04/19/2008 01:37:13 AM PDT

BEVERLY HILLS - Beverly Hills police Lt. Michael Hines knows the sinking feeling officers get when they pull someone over for speeding only to see other drivers roar past. He can't be everywhere at once.

The dozen traffic officers who patrol this wealthy burg say they've watched it happen for years. While they work the city's busier streets, motorists are short-cutting on quiet residential roads, often tearing along in what Hines calls "wonderfully high-performance vehicles."

Scottsdale, Ariz., had a similar problem in 1997. But officials there found a technological solution: cameras like the ones that capture the faces and license plates of red-light violators. When radar-activated cameras were placed along a few roadways, city officials said, average speeds dropped 9 mph.

Since then, cameras also have been installed along a freeway through the city, becoming so effective that Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano wants to put more on freeways statewide, not just to catch speeders - the death rate on Arizona highways is nearly twice that of California - but also to generate ticket revenue to narrow a $1-billion state budget gap.

The proposal has been controversial in Arizona. But in Beverly Hills, some residents and officials say the use of cameras would grab the attention of motorists.

"On a one-block residential street, for someone to get up to 40 or 50 mph is a big deal," said Alan Kaye, president of the Beverly Hills Residents

Cameras would change people's habits, he added, and "do it real quick."

Beverly Hills officials have been trying to get a camera system since 2006, only to find little traction in the California Legislature. It's one thing to use cameras to catch drivers who run red lights - an obvious danger. But deploying them to nab speeders has been a touchier issue.

Besides Big Brother concerns, pop culture has long celebrated Americans who goose the gas, a la "Smokey and the Bandit" or Sammy Hagar's "I Can't Drive 55." And speeding is the rule, not the exception, on many roads in Southern California. In 2007, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that the average speed on freeways outside Los Angeles was 78 mph - well above the 70 mph limit.

But Beverly Hills officials are pushing again this year for a bill sponsored by state Sen. Sheila Kuehl, D-Los Angeles. And the effort is being closely watched in San Jose and San Mateo, two Bay Area cities who want to use photo radar cameras to curb speeding.

San Jose had a photo radar program for nearly a decade, and it was credited with reducing the number of drivers going more than 10 mph over the speed limit by 62 percent. In 2006, 7,000 drivers received speeding tickets after a camera photographed the car's license plate and the person behind the wheel.

But that program has been discontinued, after courts ruled that speeding tickets need to be handed out by police and not monitored by a city technician from San Jose's Department of Transportation.

San Mateo would like to copy this program, but it would require legislation to allow anti-speeding cameras.

Officials see signs that opposition has begun to soften since a similar bill died in committee in 2006. Arizona, Illinois, Maryland, Oregon and Washington have approved limited use of "speed cameras," and public safety officials are either more open to the idea or support it outright.

In January, the Governors Highway Safety Association, a non-profit that represents state highway officials nationwide, called for a vast increase in the use of cameras, saying budget cuts had left police agencies with too few officers to do anything about speeders.

Kuehl's bill would create a pilot program allowing a marked mobile unit to set up in school or residential neighborhoods where the speed limit is 25 mph or less. Signs would be posted to warn drivers that cameras were present, and officers would oversee the cameras and inspect the photos before mailing them to vehicle owners with citations attached.

"This is not a technology searching for a problem to solve," said Richard Retting, a senior traffic engineer for the Arlington, Va.-based Insurance Institute. "It frees up police to do what technology can't do. Drivers respond dramatically to the threat of enforcement . . . Police chiefs recognize it's a force multiplier."

Critics also have seized on the technology.

"You can be convicted by this magical reading of a box and if it happens to be wrong, there's nothing you can do about it," said Richard Diamond, who publishes, a Web site devoted to railing against camera enforcement.

Diamond said that some lower speed limits are arbitrary and that many people who speed are just keeping up with traffic. Other experts have argued that slowing traffic overall would lead to safer roads - as it did when speed limits were cut nationally to 55 mph in 1974 during the Arab oil embargo.

"But getting that point across is not simple," said Retting. "So many people speed and don't suffer consequences for it on a daily basis."