By Cody Goodfellow
As freedom-loving Americans, we demand a weak police force and judicial system that will respect our privacy and give us the benefit of the doubt at every turn, but we also demand the kind of security and safety that comes with a police state. The shaky balance between order and liberty is a paradox we all face every day, when we entrust each other with our lives and our property on the roads. The police department in San Diego has never been able to completely control the problem, and with the city’s rabid growth and escalating traffic hassles, breaking, or at least chipping away at, the law is fast becoming routine. caption
Declaring martial law is expensive and bad public relations for a tourist town, so the city has gone to a private corporation for a solution. Sixteen intersections in San Diego are now watched by high speed still-image cameras, which are owned and operated by Lockheed IMF, a domestic division of the mammoth defense contractor that builds spyplanes for the Pentagon. A blow has been struck for order, and is quietly taking an average of 2000 San Diegans a month to task for their casual lawbreaking. The only ones you can hear complaining about it all have tickets in their hands with photos of themselves caught redhanded, so how can you take them seriously? If you can’t, congratulations, and when you learn to drive like a true Californian, we’ll see you in traffic school.
The red light camera system hasn’t aroused much controversy because it draws a clear boundary between order and liberty, which is a beautiful thing in the abstract, but tends to justify lawless excess in the real world. It also stands right at the edge of social custom, leaving a lot of people who don’t think of themselves as dangerous scofflaws on the wrong side of the line. How many of you have watched some reckless jackass narrowly miss clipping your car as he or she rockets through a red light, and wished for a policeman to punish them? How many of you have run a red light for what seemed like very valid reasons, and bitched out “The Man” for ripping you off with an unfairly large fine? What side you stand on can change depending on how much time you have to get to work, and some of the thorny issues the cameras represent deserve serious examination.
Roughly 40 cities have contracted with private corporations to monitor their most embattled intersections; Lockheed IMF runs 38 of them. The National Insurance Institute has studied their impact on collisions caused by red light violators, which account for some 25% of accidents, and Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater has recommended them to city governments as an effective deterrent. Ron Jury, a vice president of public relations at Lockheed IMF, stressed this part of the program’s appeal in a telephone interview from his office in Teaneck, New Jersey. “In recent years, you’ve seen a real public shift against aggressive driving. Intersection accidents claim thousands of lives every year, and this is a program that can impact that.” Still, if they expected society to embrace them as a boon to safety, they wouldn’t have made them bulletproof. Officer Chuck Kaye of the SDPD’s photo enforcement task force, claims there’s been very little controversy. “Some people appreciate it, others, especially those who’ve been ticketed, probably have a different view.”
A very different view, to say the least, is presented by local traffic school owner Patrick Mulroy, who runs a Web site (www.ticketassassin.com) on contesting tickets. “Safety,” he insists, “is a smokescreen that they like to throw out there to justify making money.” According to Mulroy, the city and Lockheed IMF have entered into a partnership to gouge a monstrous windfall out of ordinary citizens who’ve never been ticketed before, even under the watchful eyes of a policeman. It’s not a terribly compelling scenario until you look at the players–a moderately idealistic Governor committed to undoing the hatchet-job his predecessor did on the budget; a city government legendary for its lust for big-ticket items taxpayers won’t spring for; and a private corporation, which does, after all, exist to make money. “These tickets are the ultimate perversion of the traffic court system,” Mulroy says, “but this technology is just the flavor of the week. The entire traffic enforcement system has been turned into a revenue-generator for the state.”
And violations generate revenue that make them a mainstay in annual budgets. Five to six million people get tickets in California every year for one-point infractions. That’s over a billion dollars a year if you look at an average fine of $120 to $140. According to Patrick Mulroy, only about one percent of people or less contest their tickets, and ever since the traffic court system was streamlined in 1968 to exclude jury trials and court-appointed defense attorneys, the margin of income over expenses has continued to grow even as our driving grows worse.
The problem with this scenario, in effect, if not in motive, is that the cameras are pitched not as a tool to catch violators, but to deter them. If everybody obeys the law, the river of fines dries up. Dana King, vice president of marketing at Lockheed IMF’s San Diego headquarters, is confident that everything is above-board, and that the cameras are a necessity. “You can never get effective control of this problem until you have automated enforcement. We do a lot of public awareness, and we tell people, ‘if you go through this intersection when the light’s red, you’re going to have a ticket.’ Go figure.” The advent of the cameras was heralded by a mass postcard mailing to every household in San Diego, along with bus billboards and posters in the DMV, all so the citations would come as no surprise.
The figures for the citations in other photo enforced cities give a rosy image of compulsive utopian brotherhood on the roadways within a couple of years. A decrease in violations of 20 to 40% occurs in the first year, and roughly ten percent each year thereafter. Charlotte, North Carolina had a record 60% decrease. Accidents decline by about the same percentage elsewhere. Figures for San Diego have not been compiled yet, and no one was willing to give a preliminary estimate, but Lt. Mary Cornicell of the SDPD told me “the theory is that if the citations go down at a particular intersection, then the number of collisions will go down, too. I’ve learned from the vender that we haven’t photographed any accidents in San Diego, so that’s probably a good thing.”
San Diego Traffic Manager Toni Barradas provided me with figures for the number of photo enforcement citations issued since the program began, and the numbers are staggering, suggesting that 1) no one in San Diego reads bus billboards or junkmail, and 2) San Diego has quietly slipped into a state of near-anarchy behind our backs. The photo enforcement tickets boosted the average police-issued total of 250 a month to 863 in October of last year, then climbed as high as 2314 in December. And the numbers aren’t declining; in August of this year, the last month for which statistics were available, 2276 tickets were issued to hard-headed, lead-footed San Diegans. These skyrocketing totals are natural, since the intersections were never policed 24 hours a day before.
If these figures seem to fulfill local conspiracy theorists’ direst warnings, the case of El Cajon, which has had the cameras in service since October of ’96, bears out Lockheed’s claims. Violations at four of six intersections of June of this year totaled 128, and 43 were issued. Officer Van Every, who presides over El Cajon’s photo enforcement program, says he’s only had to appear in court about half a dozen times in the last three months. “Most review the information and the photograph, and pay the fine. We try to be fair. This system was put in to reduce the number of accidents, and red light violations cause 25% of all accidents.” Again, exact figures for the actual reduction in violations and accidents were hard to come by, but Van Every allowed they’d gone down by “a pretty good percentage.”
But there’s a cost, too: as Patrick Mulroy explains, the cameras lack a police officer’s expertise in making a traffic stop. “If I’m a cop, and you rob a bank in a stolen car, or a car with no front plates, and run through a red light, I stop you, get all the money, and you’re in jail. You rob a bank and there’s no cop there–there’s Robocop. You’re wearing a hood, you’re in a stolen car, and you run 1500 red lights; there’s 1500 pictures of you in a hood in a stolen car full of money. It can’t do what a cop can do–exercise judgment and discretion, as only a human can.”
Welcome to The Machine
For those of you who haven’t yet received the city’s informative but expensive “Statement Of Technology,” the system itself is elegant in its cut-and-dried simplicity, and works like this: six tenths of a second after the light turns red, sensor loops in the road just over the limit line are activated, and trigger the camera when a car passes over them at a speed greater than ten miles per hour. The timing device is accurate to 3/1000ths of a second; the camera has a Schneider lens, imported Dutch surveillance technology. About 1 1/2 seconds later, the camera takes a second shot of the violator moving through the intersection. From these, two more shots are generated later, one of the driver’s face, and one of the front license plate.
The film and memory cards are collected and delivered to Lockheed IMF’s photo interpretation center in Sorrento Valley. The photos are scanned and assessed by two technicians to see if 1) a violation did indeed occur, and 2) if the violator can be identified. Only 30 to 45% of the photos become tickets; these get assigned randomly generated citation numbers, passed on to another, who checks the photo data against DMV files to match the car and driver with the file data. The citation recommendations are then forwarded to the police, who review them before having them sent out.
A supervising technician at the Lockheed IMF photo interpretation center told me they have far less leeway than a police officer when reviewing the tickets, but stick to a hard and fast chronological yardstick that makes an eyeblink seem like a long nap. “Because of the technology, we can capture the person entering the intersection the instant the light turns red. A lot of people can’t conceive of 6/10ths of a second, so they honestly feel that they entered at a yellow light. But we can show that the light had been red for x amount of time, even if it hasn’t been a whole second. If there’s any question that a violation occurred, then we won’t issue a citation. Any time we issue one, we’re confident that a violation occurred.”
Reprinted with permission. Copyright © 1999 by Cody Goodfellow. All rights reserved.
This article originally appeared in the November issue of The Weekly, San Diego.