Motorists May Be Winning Against Big Brother's Speed Cameras

If you’ve ever been busted for speeding by an inanimate camera, you probably hate the things. So here's some good news for  motorists who put pedal to metal: Thanks to budget cuts and emerging technologies, the use of automated radar and red-light cameras may be on the decline.

Initially pitched by local governments as a way to deter bad driving habits and reduce accidents at particularly hazardous intersections, the use of cameras expanded rapidly in recent years. Typically, they photograph the offending car and its license plate, and a few days later the car's owner gets the incriminating photo in the mail -- along with a ticket.

Red-light cameras, which catch drivers going through stoplights, are currently in use in over 450 communities across the U.S., including Chicago, New York City and Philadelphia, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Speed cameras are less popular (and more controversial), with only 57 counties using them across the country.

Arizona was one of the biggest proponents of automated radar cameras in the U.S., and the robotic traps have been used widely in the United Kingdom since 1992, with an estimated 6,000 cameras in use.

But now these early adopters are reconsidering the use of their automated ticketing technologies.

Earlier this month, after enduring complaints from various activists, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer allowed the state's two-year-old contract for speed cameras to lapse, effectively shutting down the system of fixed and van-mounted camera speed traps. (Opponents sought an official ban on their use, but they failed by a few thousand signatures to put it up to a vote.)

In Britain, the country's coalition government is slashing budgets and has cut funding for the camera systems by 40 percent. Indeed, the British road safety minister, Mike Penning, said the cuts were "another example of this government delivering on its pledge to end the war on the motorist."

Many motorists and taxpayers in the U.S. and abroad have complained that the cameras have become revenue generators, not the safety devices that were advertised. In the U.K., for example, the first cameras were placed at troublesome accident spots, but the rules were later relaxed so that they could be installed along sleepy stretches of road that proved far more lucrative.

But the payoff may not have been as big as politicians expected, which may be the real reason some cameras are coming down.

The 76 cameras in Arizona didn't produce the revenue stream politicians had anticipated. According to the state, less than a third of the 1.2 million tickets mailed out were ever paid, which meant the government received just $78 million in fine payments -- not the $120 million it projected. Add political pressure to the equation and the disincentives to keep the cameras grew.

Dilip Sarangan, security analyst with Frost and Sullivan, agrees that red-light cameras aren't useful for generating revenue.

"If you're just looking to get more money into a state, that's not the best idea: It's really too easy for people to contest the charges," he told While noting that Des Moines, Iowa, is planning to install cameras, he cautioned that the best use for the devices is to be a deterrent, not a supplement for the bottom line.

"Ninety percent of the time, the cameras that are installed out there today aren't going to solve crimes, they're going to stop people from continuing to do the things they're doing," he said.

Safety advocates argue that red-light cameras in particular can save lives. They can be a powerful deterrent and effective warning to drivers tempted to speed up for yellow lights at intersections where a high number of accidents occur.

But opponents say that in order to be a deterrent, the cameras all have to be clearly marked -- and many aren't. In New York City, in fact, authorities work hard to conceal them, even using non-working dummy cameras to confuse motorists.

Consequently, some drivers resort to sophisticated detectors in the battle against the automated ticketers. Both Cobra and Escort offer radar detectors that are equipped with GPS and loaded with updated databases of red-light camera locations across the U.S.

The Cobra XRS 9970G flashes and blurts out "photo enforcement!" when a driver is headed toward an intersection under surveillance. The Escort Passport 9500ix offers similar features, but charges $19.95 a month for camera location updates.

Still, the war between motorists and Big Brother may continue for some time. It's still illegal to use a radar detector in Washington, D.C., and Virginia, for example. And in the U.K. newer systems using cameras located at different points along a road are being used to judge a driver's average speed.

It's an attempt to address concerns that drivers were being penalized for momentary lapses. Whether this approach will mollify opponents -- or get more offenders to actually pay tickets received in the mail -- remains to be seen.