Could speed-enforcement cameras help California close its colossal state budget deficit? Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger hopes so.

In June, California lawmakers will vote on a proposed state budget that includes a plan to let local governments install automatic cameras designed to catch speeding drivers in the act. State finance officials say deployment of the devices -- known as automated speed enforcement systems (ASE) -- could pump more than $330 million into state coffers.

California law already allows cities and counties to install red-light cameras at intersections, and more than 600 of these devices are in place throughout the state, according to the state Legislative Analyst's Office (LAO), a nonpartisan fiscal and policy adviser. Schwarzenegger's proposed state budget for 2010-11 would let local governments add ASEs, generally in areas where red-light cameras already are in place.

According to the proposal, violators would pay $225 in fines for going up to 15 miles over the speed limit, and $325 for more than 15 miles. Eighty-five percent of the money would go to the state and 15 percent to the city or county jurisdiction where the violation occurred. The proposal would generate an estimated $338 million for the state during fiscal 2010-2011, according to the California Department of Finance. Some of that money would be used to beef up courthouse security, but the bulk of it would be funneled into California's General Fund. Local governments would reap $59.6 million over the same time period.

In spite of projected financial benefits, the speed camera proposal faced opposition in a February state Senate budget meeting. Vocal detractors included the Teamsters union, the Automobile Club of Southern California and some state senators, even though the Department of Finance and LAO expressed support.

State Sen. Bob Huff worries the cameras would increase accidents if drivers, wary of getting caught, slammed on their brakes to slow down abruptly in camera zones, causing rear-end accidents.

"You already have people who are going to speed up or slow down at these things, and so you're creating an arbitrary and unexpected movement," he said. "If somebody is new, they don't know there's a camera. They're following along, [and] the person in front of them slams on their brakes. That's a problem."

Barry Broad, a Teamsters lobbyist, said ASE systems could enable state and local governments to abuse their power over citizens. "The local governments control the speed at which lights turn yellow and then red, so they can program a quick [light] change to drive up their revenue," he said.

"How much Big Brother do we really need?" added Broad. "How many cameras do we need to be a surveillance society like England has become? I don't think Americans like that very much."

A 2009 BBC article claimed that there were 4.2 million closed-circuit cameras in Britain.

Behind Electric Eyes

According to a February Fresno Bee editorial, Redflex, an international supplier of red light and speed cameras, worked with California on the ASE proposal. H.D. Palmer, Department of Finance deputy director for external affairs, confirmed as much when he spoke with Government Technology in March.

According to Shoba Vaitheeswaran, Redflex's director of communications, the speed camera technology would work the same way the company's red-light cameras do. In the red-light system, when a vehicle moves over sections of street that have wires beneath, the mass of metal interacts with the wire to create changes in the electromagnetic field, which triggers the camera. Redflex puts this "inductive loop" technology wherever a jurisdiction designates the violation boundary is.

"At any intersection, you will see a line -- this is called the violation line or the stop line that is set by the municipality. We listen to their ordinances, and we actually stripe it," Vaitheeswaran said. "Sometimes the technology provider 'stripes' the road and lays down

Hilton Collins, Staff Writer Hilton Collins  | 

Hilton Collins is a former staff writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines.