Drivers Beware

Lost parking and traffic tickets are becoming a thing of the past, thanks to imaging technology.

by / July 31, 1998
In Chicago, parking tickets used to be a joke. Word on the street was that the city government rarely went after unpaid tickets. By 1989, fewer than 10 percent of parking violators paid their fines, resulting in a $420 million backlog of unpaid parking tickets.

Mayor Richard M. Daley decided to tackle the problem with technology. The city hired EDS, of Plano, Texas, to rebuild the broken system using the latest technology. At its heart was an imaging system that allowed satellite payment offices throughout the city to retrieve images of contested tickets.

With the city able to keep track of every ticket issued, drivers started paying their parking fines. Within a few years, the city was able to pay back the $40 million it owed EDS for the system. Today, Chicago collects on 65 percent of its parking tickets, and revenue tops $75 million a year.

Scofflaws and Paper

Not every city has experienced the kind of wholesale collapse of its parking-ticket program that Chicago went through in the 1980s. Most cities and counties have collection rates that hover around 60 percent, according to the Institutional and Municipal Parking Congress. In Los Angeles, where the car reigns supreme, the city collects 78 percent, considered one of the best rates in the country.

But talk to most clerks who manage ticketing operations for parking and moving violations, and they will tell you about the costs in time and labor related to handling and tracking paper tickets. "A moving-violation ticket passes from the police officer who writes the ticket, to the police department that does its own processing, to a delivery company that delivers the tickets in bundles to the court clerk's office," explained Sharon Radford, project coordinator for the Florida Association of Court Clerks and Comptrollers. "The tickets are then filed away in cabinets, where they must be retrieved during court proceedings. It's a lot of handling by a lot of people."

Most cities and counties use a variety of techniques to go after parking and traffic scofflaws, including collection agencies, boot and tow campaigns, delays on car registrations and reports to private credit bureaus. However, if the actual ticket is lost or mislaid, fine collections and, if necessary, court proceedings grind to a halt.

Hoping to stem the high costs and long delays associated with paper tickets, Florida's Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, working with the Florida Association of Court Clerks and Comptrollers, awarded a $6.2 million contract to Unisys, of Blue Bell, Pa., for automating the state's traffic-citation system. The project
will rely on pen-based computers, a high-speed network, a centralized database, document imaging and forms-processing software to keep track of the 3 million-plus tickets that are written in the state each year.

While imaging is an optional module that courts can elect to use, according to Radford, 10 out of 67 court clerks have expressed interest in the imaging application so far. "The system blows up an image of the ticket to allow for heads-up data entry," she explained. By keeping their eyes on the screen while they enter data, clerks will be able to process tickets quicker with less fatigue. In other imaging applications involving heads-up data entry, productivity can increase by as much as 20 percent, according to Unisys.

"I'm a big proponent of imaging," Radford continued. "It adds lots of value to the overall ticketing system." Besides increasing productivity, Radford also mentioned the faster response time for retrieving tickets. Imaging is also expected to boost revenue collected from the tickets, according to Ed Brooks, president of the Florida Association of Court Clerks and Comptrollers. The entire system, known as TCATS (Traffic Citation Accounting and Transmission System), is expected to be operational in spring 1999.

'Slivers of Paper'

Broward County, Fla., won't need to add imaging when TCATS goes into operation. Since 1996, the Office of the Clerk of Courts has been using imaging to process nearly 500,000 traffic citations each year. "This is the first moving-violation imaging system in the country," said Broward County Clerk of Court Robert E. Lockwood. "It has eliminated the error factor in our court rooms. The judges love it."

Built by Com Squared Systems of Atlanta, the $400,000 system scans, stores and distributes the ticket images to four court houses in and around Fort Lauderdale.

The system sits on a UNIX platform and stores the images on a RAID-5 storage system with an optical-disc jukebox as a backup. Twenty PCs, running Windows 95, are available as processing and viewing stations to clerks and judges, respectively. An ATM (asynchronous transfer mode) network ensures high-speed transmission.

Elton Joshua, court liaison officer, described the manual system as a massive paper chain involving "slivers of paper." "If just one ticket got misfiled, it could lead to another misfiling and so on," he said. Now, the tickets come in and are scanned in batches. Each ticket has a citation number and a bar code for that number. The scanner reads the bar code and captures the image at the same time.

Right now, the court has a case-management system for the tickets that is separate from the imaging system. However, later this year, the two will merge, so that calling up a case file on the computer will include the ticket image. Eventually, the system will also include the same kind of heads-up data entry for ticket processing that has been designed into TCATS.

According to Joshua, the impact of the imaging system was felt immediately during the pilot test. In fact, the staff got so

carried away, they exceeded the number of scanned images planned for the initial phase. "When the vendor found out how many tickets we were scanning, he joked there had been a hostile takeover of the pilot project," said Joshua. Today, the fruit of Broward County's efforts can be found in the amount of increased revenue generated by a more accurate traffic-citation system. That's good news for the county, bad news for traffic violators.

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