Speeders, Say Cheese

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Some people get angry. Some stoically accept their fate. Others try to reason with the police officer who has pulled them over for some real or imagined traffic offense. But when law enforcement is represented by a computer-driven camera that has immortalized your violation on film--as is the case at hundreds of intersections in more 60 cities around the U.S.--it's hard to talk your way out of a hefty fine. Yet that is precisely what some 300 motorists in San Diego succeeded in doing last week when a superior court judge ruled that pictures taken by so-called red-light cameras were unreliable and therefore inadmissible.

The first U.S. court decision to reject en masse traffic violations caught on camera, the ruling by Judge Ronald Styn has fueled debate over the growing use of the devices. Police departments swear, and studies indicate, that the robocams deter people from speeding and running red lights. A Lou Harris poll set for release this week finds that 69% of Americans support their use. Yet at least seven states have blocked proposals to implement them, and opponents--ranging from House majority leader Dick Armey to the American Civil Liberties Union--argue that the cameras violate privacy and place profit above public safety.

Part of the problem is that virtually all the devices in place are operated by private firms that handle everything from installing the machinery to identifying violations--often with minimal police oversight--and have an incentive to pull in as many drivers as they can. The companies get paid as much as $70 a ticket, and the total revenue is hardly chump change. San Diego has raked in $15.9 million since October 1998, and Washington $12.8 million since August 1999. "It's all about money," says Congressman Bob Barr, a leading critic. Not so, insists Terrance Gainer, Washington's executive assistant chief of police. "We have reduced fatalities. If some company is making money off that, that is the American way."

Critics counter that there must be other, less intrusive ways to make intersections safer, such as lengthening the yellow light or adding turn lanes. "I object to this fixation we have with cameras and electronically gathered information," says Barr. "It places too much confidence in technology." That confidence, as Washington residents have learned, can be misplaced. The city removed one camera last May that had generated more than 19,000 tickets at a particularly confusing intersection. In San Diego, faulty sensors made drivers appear to be going faster than they really were. The city suspended the system in July, pending an independent audit this fall.

Another concern is privacy. While systems in Washington, Maryland and North Carolina photograph nothing but the rear of the car, others in Arizona, California and Colorado take a picture of the driver's seat as well--a bit of electronic monitoring that could land straying spouses in trouble a lot more serious than a traffic violation.

In Europe, where speedcams are deployed by the thousands and are even less popular than they are here, resentful drivers have started to take matters into their own hands, seeking out hidden cameras and knocking them over with their cars.