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Police use of surveillance cameras against motorists increasing

Wednesday, August 09, 2000

By Jon Schmitz, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Some call it "cop in a box."

Others call it "Big Brother."


For a look at how photo enforcement systems work, visit the following Web site:


Across the United States, increasing numbers of police agencies are using surveillance cameras to get the goods on brazen motorists -- speeders, red light runners, toll booth cheats and railroad-crossing daredevils.

The cameras snap pictures of offenders' license plates -- and sometimes the offenders themselves. A computer generates a citation.

No flashing red-and-blue lights in the rearview mirror. Instead, the bad news comes via U.S. mail.

One international expert is urging the Pennsylvania Legislature to use cameras to attack chronic speeding in construction zones.

"To me, it's a natural," said Bob Rodgers, international president of the Institute of Transportation Engineers, which has 15,000 members in 80 countries. Rodgers, a Philadelphia-based transportation consultant, pitched the idea to some members of the state House Transportation Committee this year.

"I'm open to the idea," said state Rep. John Pippy, R-Moon, a committee member. "The key is it would have to be in a very limited scope. We don't want a society where we have video cameras on every corner."

Cameras have long been used in traffic enforcement in other countries but are just gaining a toehold in the United States.

Twelve states, including Maryland, Virginia and Delaware, have authorized police to use surveillance cameras to nab red-light runners at problem intersections. At least 10 other states are considering it.

The cameras have "caused a significant reduction in the number of people running red lights and stop signs," said Ron Geist, managing director of the Pennsylvania Highway Information Association, a group whose goals include improving work zone safety.

A smaller number of jurisdictions use photo radar to nab speeders. Devices mounted on poles are equipped with radar guns and cameras that photograph any car exceeding a certain speed. A computer identifies the owner and issues a citation by mail.

Critics say it's just a higher-tech version of the old small-town speed traps that were used to fill municipal coffers.

Some state legislatures have declined to authorize camera use in traffic enforcement. Wisconsin and New Jersey have banned it.

The National Motorists Association, a nonprofit organization dedicated "to protecting the rights and interests" of drivers, opposes all camera enforcement.

"The technology is not infallible," said Eric Skrum, the association's communications director. "It's not constantly manned. There's no one checking to ensure there aren't problems. False readings are possible."

Motorists who are cited can't cross-examine a camera, so their right to face their accuser is abridged, he said.

The American Automobile Association also opposes photo radar. Jack Haver, spokesman for West Penn AAA, said citations often don't arrive until weeks later, making it difficult for a motorist to remember the incident and prepare a defense.

State Rep. John Maher, R-Upper St. Clair, a member of the Transportation Committee, voiced similar objections.

"Every motorist has had an experience where they're about to be overrun by a truck and decide to maneuver away from it to a more open part of the road," he said. A motorist who briefly speeds up to do that might be photographed and not remember the specifics when the citation arrives later.

When a trooper stops a motorist on the spot, he is fully aware of the circumstances and better able to defend himself, Maher said.

"The best solution [to work zone speeding] is more of a physical presence by the state police," he said.

Rodgers acknowledged that cameras are controversial and said he got a mixed reaction from legislators.

He said his proposal was designed to answer the common complaints about photo radar.

Rodgers said cameras would be limited to highway work zones, although he acknowledged that they could eventually be used for general speed limit enforcement.

Signs would warn motorists approaching work zones that cameras were in use.

In some western states, cameras photograph the motorist and the license plate, and violations are treated like conventional speeding tickets -- with fines, points and possible license suspension for chronic offenders, he said.

To defuse opposition on privacy grounds, Rodgers proposed that the cameras used in Pennsylvania only photograph license plates and not drivers.

Offenses would be treated like parking tickets -- there would be fines but no points or insurance company notification. The citation would be issued to the vehicle rather than the driver.

Rodgers said the cameras could be set to cite only the more egregious violators -- say those exceeding the work zone limit by 10 mph or more.

Revenue from fines would go not to the state's general fund but to highway safety education programs, so the program wouldn't be perceived as a cash cow.

Rodgers said cameras have brought dramatic reductions in highway fatalities and speeding in other countries.

Pennsylvania was the first state to legislate higher fines for work zone traffic violations -- a gesture 45 other states have since copied, with little effect on work zone speeding.

Rodgers said Pennsylvania could once again be a pioneer in work zone safety by adopting photo enforcement.

"Right now, so few tickets are given," he said. "People know they are pretty much immune from getting one. The vast majority of people are not obeying the work zone speed limits. It's a nationwide problem."

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