Cop cameras don't just catch speeders, they raise cash

WASHINGTON — The leafy capital suburb of Chevy Chase Village is a great place to live but you wouldn't want to visit there.

At least not by car. Easy-to-miss automated speed cameras on its half-mile main drag, where the speed limit is 30 mph, caught 3,500 speeders on their first day of operation last fall. Before that, the norm was six tickets a day.

Many speeders first learn they've been caught when citations, along with photographic evidence, show up at the addresses that match the violators' license plates.

Be forewarned: More than 300 U.S. communities use automated "cop cam" systems like Chevy Chase's. They're after not just speeders but also red-light violators and railroad-crossing jumpers.

In the works are bus-mounted cop cams that ticket bus lane intruders, cop cams to punish speeders in highway construction zones, even cop cam systems that ticket motorists based on a car's average speed over a mile. They catch drivers who brake for known camera sites, then resume speeding.

Want to fight a cop cam ticket?

The same software that processes violations lets drivers view the five seconds before and after their alleged offenses on their home computers.

"It's very compelling evidence," said Cristina Weekes, the executive vice president for sales and marketing at Redflex Traffic Systems Inc., of Scottsdale, Ariz., a leading cop-cam maker.

"It's almost a no-win," admitted Horace Bradshaw, Washington's best-known traffic court defense lawyer.

When polled, substantial majorities approve of cop cams. When ticketed, however, lots are outraged.

"It's like Nazi Germany!" sputtered Dan Bradley, 41, a federal personnel investigator who routinely runs the six-lane Chevy Chase gantlet. "They ticket you for speeds that aren't dangerous."

In the peaceable United Kingdom, where cop cams are 10 times more widely used, saboteurs have shot out cameras lenses, disabled them with bolt cutters, set fire to them and pulled them down with a tractor's help, according to news reports.

What bugs people is clear from an industry pioneer's explanation of the effectiveness of cop cams:

"It's like the prospect of an IRS audit: The perception of risk promotes voluntary compliance," said Jim Tuton, founder of American Traffic Solutions of Scottsdale, Weekes' rival.

Three more tangible advantages excite municipal officials:

  • Cop cams suppress violations effectively by all accounts, at least around known camera sites. In one widely cited study, six speed cameras posted on an eight-mile stretch of the Loop 101 freeway in Scottsdale cut speeders by 88 percent over a nine-month period.
  • Cop cams reduce accidents, by most accounts. The frequent exception is more rear-enders, due to sudden stops on yellow at intersections where drivers know that the light is camera-monitored. Reductions in more hazardous right-angle crashes more than offset the added rear-enders, police say.
  • The third reason, which municipal officials downplay, is that cop cams can be cash cows.
  • In Chevy Chase, for example, where speeding tickets brought in about $8,000 monthly before cop cams, "We are routinely bringing in approximately a quarter-million dollars per month," Geoffrey Biddle, Chevy Chase's village manager, told his Board of Managers in February.

    For a community of 2,000 with an annual budget of $4.6 million, that's a bonanza. What's more, because locals know enough to evade the cop cams, the village's new revenue mostly comes from outsiders, rather like a commuter tax.

    Nor are Chevy Chase's big gains unique. Washington's dozen cop cams have taken in more than $200 million since 2001. Scottsdale's six freeway cameras took in $17 million in 2006.

    Chevy Chase Police Chief Roy Gordon said in an interview, however: "It's not about how much revenue we're taking in with these cameras; it's about changing driver behavior."

    There are four ways to avoid cop cam tickets: Most communities warn motorists that traffic laws are photo-enforced. New York City is one exception. Most municipalities also list cop-cam locations on their Web sites. Some new navigation systems warn drivers of known cop cam locations. And there's a site that tries to keep track of them,

    Municipalities and contractors both do well by doing good, but contractors do more of the work.

    The contractor studies a community's violation patterns, recommends camera locations, and calibrates and maintains the cameras. Using the police department's definition of speeding — typically 10 or 11 miles above the posted speed except in school zones — the cop cam system saves only the images of likely violators. Police review these along with the proposed citations.

    Reviewers toss those with flaws, such as blurred license-plate numbers, more than one car in a single radar photo image or, in many jurisdictions, rental cars, whose drivers are too hard to track down. Contractors ticket the remainder and track collections.

    Revenue splits vary, depending on the amounts of fines and traffic.

    In Kingsport, Tenn., for example, Redflex receives 80 percent of the ticket price ($40) for the first 95 tickets issued at each intersection approach each month. Kingsport gets the remaining $10, according to Deputy Police Chief David Quillin.

    After 95 tickets, Redflex and Kingsport split the fines evenly. In addition, Kingsport gets court costs, which the city council hiked from $13.50 to $50 last year. (The increase "would have happened regardless of the cameras," Quillin said. )

    For the city, the gain is from $160,000 a year pre-cameras to an estimated $1.4 million. Redflex will make about half that.

    Currently, 27 states — including California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Mississippi, North Carolina, Texas and Washington — permit some kind of cop cam system. Arizona bought 100 speed and HOV-lane cameras this year for state highways. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg wants hundreds more.

    Their only natural enemies are proving to be state legislatures. Many are so keen for a big share of cop cam revenue that local governments lose the incentive to introduce the cameras.

    Nonetheless, cop cam maker Tuton predicts that the cameras someday will be part of the "standard national infrastructure."

    The big reason is that their spread is viral: When they work, violations and revenue both fall. To that, the likeliest answer is more cameras.

    On the Web:

    More on speed camera systems

    An assessment of safety improvements attributable to red light cop-cams

    Cop-cam makers:

    The best anti-cop-cam site: