Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, November 29, 2001

Traffic camera system better without profits

The state is about to launch its long-awaited photo traffic enforcement program next week, complete with some serious questions about the very propriety of the operation.

The system, reports Advertiser transportation writer Mike Leidemann, uses lasers, underground sensors, digital cameras and computers to catch speeders and drivers who run red lights.

There's no arguing that speeders and drivers who run red lights are a serious threat to safety. But we live in a democracy complete with procedural safeguards that must not be shrugged off in the name of expediency.

As reported by Leidemann, the technology used to ticket red-light runners appears quite sound. The driver in effect catches himself by driving into an intersection after the light has turned red, and proceeding through it, thus triggering a series of photos.

The difficulty in other jurisdictions has occurred when the company operating the technology readjusts the equipment to trigger photos when the light is "orange," that is, yellow about to go red. Just how soon after the light turns yellow constitutes a violation, however, becomes a subjective judgment.

Why would the operating company be interested in ticketing more offenders by making a tougher call on yellow lights? Because the operator receives a flat percentage of each ticket issued. A similar system was sidelined recently in San Diego by a judge who threw out 300 tickets issued by that city's automated camera system.

That ruling obviously has no legal impact in Hawai'i. But the judge's reasoning was relevant: He ruled that there was a profit motive involved. This financial incentive, he decided, tainted the evidence.

That court, however, was clear that automated surveillance can serve a legitimate public purpose. We agree, but wish the state would pay the operator what it costs to install and maintain the system, rather than using incentives.

That difficulty is compounded when it comes to the operator's other charter, that is, to issue speeding tickets by using similarly high-tech equipment operated from vans.

In describing their approach to ticketing speeders, the operators have made clear their intention to ticket anyone going over the speed limit. That is, if the van finds a stream of traffic on the freeway moving at 54 mph in a 50-mph zone, it can and will ticket all.

In the existing situation, officers in patrol cars also have the option of pulling over any driver who is speeding, no matter how slightly. But the officer has the flexibility to decide whether that car is being driven smoothly and in tune with the general flow of traffic.

As a practical matter, traffic in Honolulu (except during rush hours) tends to flow several miles per hour above the speed limit. Drivers who insist on driving exactly at the speed limit, especially in the fast lane, often find themselves on the receiving end of angry honks and gestures.

It's our guess that a sudden enforcement of the precise speed limit could cause chaotic changes in traffic patterns, as well as great resentment and loss of respect for law enforcement.

The proposed system can work very well in Honolulu — if the profit incentive for the operator is removed, and if the speed limit enforcement is used rationally and if it begins with a break-in period, perhaps with a 10 percent margin of error, to give drivers a chance to adjust.