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California Officials Debate Using Traffic Cameras to Help Close the State Budget Deficit

Automated speed enforcement systems could bring California more than $330 million.

by / May 6, 2010
Traffic Camera

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

the violation line according to the municipality's specifications."

To make inductive loop technology catch speeders too, the ASE system incorporates a time-distance equation to assess a car's speed relative to where it is on the road, so that if a vehicle is going too fast, the camera is triggered. The cameras will shoot pictures of the violating vehicle, including shots of the license plate. In California, the cameras will also take pictures of the driver's face.

The shots are pushed through an encrypted virtual private network to a Redflex processing center where company personnel verify the photo contents to ensure that an infraction has occurred according to the laws of the jurisdiction where the photos were taken. The information is then given to law enforcement.

"An officer of that municipality logs in from a police station into the software and can review that file, and that's where they actually reject or authorize that," Vaitheeswaran said. "So every single photo enforcement ticket is reviewed by the officer."

The process isn't as intrusive as many fear, she said. "The purpose of these cameras isn't to invade privacy. They detect vehicles or drivers that are violating the rules of the road. This method is not as intrusive as being pulled over by an officer who will stop you, check for your valid license, check your registration, insurance, your private record, run your plate, and obviously look inside your car."

Palmer added that speed cameras wouldn't be the first type of cameras to raise privacy concerns -- red-light cameras are already here. "If there is a concern about Big Brotherism, then that's a concern that would exist right now," he said. "Those cameras are already in place as a law enforcement tool."

Working Out the Details

In Arizona, home to Redflex's U.S. office, speed cameras have been met with minimal enthusiasm. In 2007, then-Gov. Janet Napolitano proposed the speed camera program, and according to a November 2007 study by the Arizona Department of Transportation, speed enforcement cameras in a trial demonstration reduced total crashes by 44 to 54 percent, and the number of injury crashes decreased by 28 to 48 percent. But in 2009, legislators proposed a ban on them, and in February 2010, the Los Angeles Times reported that Arizonans were blocking the cameras by putting Post-it notes or boxes over the lenses. One woman attacked a camera with an ax.

In California, Palmer said the General Assembly has until June 15 to approve or disapprove the state budget and the ASE proposal within it.

"Then the governor has until June 30 to either sign or veto the budget, so in between now and mid-June would be the time frame by which the Legislature will make a determination whether they want to go with this, reject it or come up with an alternative proposal," he said.

The LAO already has recommended some changes, including giving local governments a bigger share of the revenue generated by the cameras.

"We felt that [15 percent] probably wasn't giving local governments enough revenue to make the program self-supporting. The other important fact about the governor's proposal is that it wouldn't require local governments to install the systems, it would authorize them to do it, and so it was critical that locals have an incentive to implement these systems," said Drew Soderborg, LAO's fiscal and policy analyst.

Other recommendations include amending the fine amount to be consistent with current state fines for speeding violations. Under current enforcement, the penalty for exceeding a speed limit by up to 15 mph is $212, less than the $225 listed in the ASE proposal. However, the fine for exceeding by 16 to 25 mph is $332 in current enforcement conditions, more than the $325 in the ASE proposal.

"The governor had proposed a different fine level for people caught by automated speed enforcement systems than the fine that they would get if they were caught through traditional methods for speeding, and we felt that the fine should be the same because there's no reason to have basically the same behavior being treated differently," Soderborg said.

He couldn't predict if the proposal would wind up in the budget, but things don't look good if the state Senate budget meeting in February was any indication.

"I don't have a high opinion of bills that are put into budget that have tremendous policy implications," said Sen. Alan Lowenthal. "The governor put into the budget this proposal saying that it would enhance safety, but that's really up to the policy committee. If it does, we should have full hearings on it, not do it through a budget bill."


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Hilton Collins

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

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