Slow down, you're on candid camera
- By Eric Kulisch
- Jan 01, 1990
By year's end, aggressive drivers in Washington, D.C., will have one more
sobering obstacle to contend with: photo radar enforcement. No longer will
luck, radar detectors, headlight warnings from fellow motorists or tactical
mapping of likely speed trap locations be enough to avoid a speeding citation.
Speeders will not know they have been caught until they receive a notice
in the mail that begins: "On the date and time listed below, your vehicle
was photographed violating District of Columbia law."
The nation's capital is the latest U.S. municipality to apply radar
technology to enforce laws against everything from running red lights to
speeding. According to auto safety advocates and numerous surveys, speeding
is one of the most common manifestations of aggressive driving that law-abiding
motorists would like to contain.
District residents rated unsafe driving as their top public safety
concern — ahead of drug dealing and gang loitering — in 1998 and 1999 citywide
surveys conducted by Northwestern University's Institute for Policy Research.
And 67 percent of motorists in the Washington area to some degree favor
the use of remote radar and camera technology to catch speeders, according
to the latest annual transportation poll by the mid-Atlantic division of
the American Automobile Association.
Although generally not as popular as red-light photo enforcement, public
support nationwide has made photo radar enforcement politically acceptable
in 16 North American cities, including Tempe, Ariz.; National City, Calif.;
Denver; and Edmonton in Alberta, Canada.
The first U.S. city to use photo radar was Paradise Valley, Ariz., in
1987. More than 30 years ago, the Netherlands began to use technology developed
by Gastometer BV, a Dutch company that pioneered the technology. Now more
than 75 countries use more than 2,500 speed cameras, according to the Insurance
Institute for Highway Safety.
How It Works
On a recent weekday afternoon in the tony Foxhall neighborhood of Washington,
almost half of the vehicles passing by a plain Ford Crown Victoria were
going faster than the posted 25 mph limit.
The vehicle's two distinguishing features are a radar unit mounted on
the front bumper and no passenger seat — to accommodate the photo radar
camera. A radar unit transmits a beam at a 20-degree angle, and an antenna
converts the difference in the reflected radar frequency to determine the
speed of the vehicle. If the vehicle's speed is greater than the allowable
threshold set by the operator — say, 30 mph — the radar signal automatically
triggers a motor-driven camera to photograph the vehicle.
The 35mm camera, which uses specially made Eastman Kodak Co. 400-speed
film that comes in 100-foot rolls of 800 frames, can take two photographs
The system can detect the speed of vehicles that are approaching or
driving away. Because of privacy concerns in Washington, however, police
can only photograph the rear of a vehicle, but that is enough to capture
the license plate number.
Using special software and hardware, technicians from Lockheed Martin
Corp.'s IMS subsidiary digitize the film into a compressed file, run a search
of national law enforcement or state motor vehicle databases to match the
license plate number with the registered owner of the car, print a citation,
then mail it out.
Under a five-and-a-half-year contract that includes two one-year options,
Lockheed Martin IMS will operate 39 red-light cameras and one fixed and
five mobile photo radar systems for the District police. The estimated value
of the effort — which includes digitizing the images, issuing the citations,
processing the payments and even scheduling hearings for appeals — is $27
million, said Lisa Sutter, senior project manager with Lockheed Martin IMS.
Tickets from violators pay for the program. Lockheed Martin IMS gets $29
from each paid photo radar ticket, said police spokesman Kevin Morison.
The rest of the money goes into the city's general fund.
The city could expand automated enforcement to right-turn-on-red and
pedestrian-safety violations because the enabling legislation and contract are
widely drawn, Sutter said.
Unlike traditional radar, the Gatso Type 24 MRC Slant Radar used by
Lockheed Martin IMS transmits a narrow enough beam to eliminate the risk
of tracking two vehicles at once. Also, with photo radar, the offending
vehicle is tracked within 100 feet of the photo radar car. Emitting radar
beams at an angle errs in favor of the driver because it records speeds
that are less than the driver actually is driving, Sutter said.
The camera control unit is set up by programming information such as
time, date, location, film type, direction of traffic and threshold speed,
and connecting it to the camera. Other information about conditions that
can influence the severity of the violation, such as the weather or if children
were nearby, are written on a plate inserted into the unit. All the data
is exposed directly onto the film negative for the violation.
Although the mobile photo radar system frees up uniformed officers for
other duties, it does not function on autopilot. Someone has to drive the
vehicle and change the film.
Operators are required to run through a comprehensive checklist of procedures — such as parking exactly four inches from the curb — and tests and calibrations
are necessary to make sure the system is working before and after each deployment.
At the very least, that means checks at the beginning and end of the
day for static systems and more checks if the mobile units are moved during
the day to allow police to target problem areas.
"The primary issue is to be able to testify to the integrity of the
equipment if someone appeals," Morison said.
To get beyond the Big Brother stereotype, city governments design photo
radar policies with privacy concerns in mind.
Jurisdictions such as the District of Columbia do not identify the drivers
but rather cite the owner of a photographed vehicle. Alleged violators have
the same rights to contest a photo citation as they do those received directly
from a police officer. The district's policy, for instance, allows the vehicle
owner to protest if someone else was driving the vehicle at the time or
if his or her vehicle or tag was stolen.
City councilwoman Carol Schwartz isn't completely sold on the photo
radar concept. She recently introduced legislation to make sure the Department
of Motor Vehicles can't issue points against driving records based on radar
tickets. And she worries that the program will be perceived as merely a
moneymaker for the district. "I just want to make sure it is purely safety
related and not used as a tool to generate revenue," she said.
Cities have different approaches to notifying people about photo enforcement
and projecting a sense of fair play. The Mesa (Ariz.) Police Department
positions "Photo Enforcement Ahead" signs a block or two in front their
mobile vans, said Brenda Black, the traffic program coordinator. Washington
simply relies on 55 permanent signs along major arteries that picture a
camera and proclaim, "Warning: Traffic Laws Photo Enforced."
"The whole point of that type of device is to stop people from speeding.
If these signs are prominent and people see them, people will respond because
they don't want to get caught," said Mantill Williams, AAA's national spokesman.
The radar appears to be making a difference. "The hard thing for us
to do is to show a decrease in the average speed because of the tolerance
that is built" into the actual enforcement criteria, said Staff Sgt. Kerry
Nesbit of the Edmonton Police Service.
In Edmonton, which has used photo radar since 1993, the percentage of
people who speed in radar- controlled areas declined from 6.8 percent in
1998 to 6.1 percent in 1999 even with higher volumes of traffic monitored,
he said. So far this year, the violation rate is 4.2 percent.
British Columbia uses 30 photo radar cameras. Researchers from the Insurance
Corporation of British Columbia, a government-affiliated agency, found
a 7 percent decline in accidents, up to 20 percent fewer deaths and a 10
percent decline in daytime injuries the first year the cameras were used.
The percentage of speeding vehicles at camera sites declined from 66
percent in 1996 to less than 40 percent a year later, according to the
Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's June 19, 1999, Status Report newsletter.