In the archaic days of law enforcement (think 2006), an alert police officer, obscured by the cover of brush or a hill, sat patiently with a radar gun, waiting for a car to fly by at 90 miles per hour before sounding the sirens. But in this age of advanced technology, lead-footed motorists may never see flashing red-blue lights before getting a ticket — caught speeding, not by a police officer, but through the eye of a camera.
Although widely used in Europe and Australia, so-called “speed cameras” are a relatively new innovation for US law enforcement. Speed cameras are high-tech digital cameras that take pictures of vehicles exceeding the speed limit (many are programmed to photograph vehicles traveling 11 miles or more over the posted limit). They not only get a photo of the vehicle’s license plate, but also record the date, time, location and vehicle speed. These cameras are usually found in three different positions: mounted on poles, attached to traffic lights, or housed in vans or other mobile units. When a vehicle passes one of the cameras and exceeds the predetermined speed limit, the camera will quickly take a series of photos to record the violation. The photos are then processed by an analyst, who tracks the license plate number and identifies the registered owner (so even if a vehicle’s owner is not the one driving, they will still receive the ticket). Citations are usually sent 1-2 weeks after the violation, along with copies of the vehicle’s photos and clocked speed.
While speed cameras remain controversial, a recently released report from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), a non-profit organization funded by the auto insurance industry, showed that the cameras can, in fact, be very effective at deterring speeders. The report, which analyzed data from a fixed speed camera enforcement program on a busy highway in Scottsdale, Ariz., found that the number of drivers traveling faster than 75 miles per hour decreased from 15 percent without cameras to 1 to 2 percent with cameras. . Comparing speeds on the camera-laden highway to speeds on nearby highways without cameras, researchers also concluded that the Scottsdale program was associated with a whopping 95 percent decrease in the likelihood that a driver would exceed 75 miles per hour.
Another area, Montgomery County, MD, uses both fixed and mobile speed cameras to enforce speed limits of 35 miles per hour or less — especially in school zones. This suburb of Washington, D.C., began using speed cameras in May 2007, charging a flat fee of $40 for each person given a ticket. By comparing driving speeds 6 months before the cameras were used with those 6 months after they got the cameras, the researchers found that speeding in enforcement areas dropped by 70 percent. In addition, the tickets earned more than $2 million in revenue for the area.
Surprisingly, support for speed cameras is also quite high among motorists. Surveys have shown that around 60 percent of motorists support speed cameras, which, while not an overwhelming majority, is more than one would expect. But without putting cameras on every stretch of road, many question their effectiveness. While the IIHS study produced many positive results, it also indicated that once drivers were outside the posted camera zone (an area of about 8 miles), they quickly reverted to speeding. And another argument against the cameras is that ticketed drivers never get a chance to face an accuser — at least not a human one.