Increasingly, it's not a police officer, but a camera that's catching traffic violators
Sunday, May 11, 2008
New York Times
These days, the police are much less likely to be hiding behind a billboard waiting to nab someone going over the speed limit. Technology has gone far beyond that.
In recent years, local governments have eagerly adopted photo-enforcement technology - surveillance cameras that take a picture of an offending vehicle and its license plate - to nab those who exceed the speed limit or cross an intersection when the light is red.
As with most other technological advances, there have been unanticipated consequences.
Increasingly, travelers are receiving unpleasant surprises in the mail: tickets for alleged violations that they may not remember, perhaps from weeks or months earlier.
A spokeswoman for Avis said citations directly attributed to enforcement cameras have risen 25 percent in the last year among its customers. Both Avis and Hertz, the two major car-rental companies, say they often pay the fine and then bill the customer, adding a processing charge.
Although drivers' rights advocates argue that some states and municipalities have gone too far with photo enforcement, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety is a strong advocate. It says that standard law enforcement doesn't have the resources to keep pace with violations.
Between 1995 and 2005, the estimated number of vehicle miles traveled in the United States rose by 23 percent, but the number of municipal law-enforcement officers grew by 12 percent," Stephen Oesch, a senior vice president with the organization, told Maryland legislators in February.
"Because speeding is common and viewed as acceptable behavior by many drivers, it is a major factor in motor vehicle crashes," the institute said in a report evaluating the effectiveness of speed cameras. Red-light cameras are now in use in 300 jurisdictions, and speed cameras in more than 30 jurisdictions in 26 states, the group says.
Critics point to federal statistics showing that 42,642 people died in vehicular crashes in 2006, 4 percent fewer deaths than in 1975, even though roads have become more crowded.
Better road engineering and law enforcement that concentrates on unsafe driving are what's needed, the critics say.
Drivers, meanwhile, are fighting back with their own technology, as they have since the radar detector became popular in the early 1970s.
With tax revenues falling, incentives are growing for municipalities to use photo enforcement to raise cash, said Shannon Atkinson, president of www.Njection.com. With an enforcement camera, he said, "you can pick off 20 people an hour, easily."
Atkinson, a network engineer, started his business as a Web site for car and driving enthusiasts, but added a popular feature that merges Google Maps technology with information from motorists pinpointing real-time speed traps - whether operated by police officers or by cameras - at thousands of locations in the United States and abroad.
The feature has drawn many new users, including "drivers whose livelihoods depend on being on the road all the time ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^- your truck drivers, your road warriors who go from city to city," Atkinson said.