In a familiar old-time movie scene, a policeman on a motorcycle hides behind a billboard, waiting to roar out, siren wailing, after a driver who’s speeding past. In the 1950s, car-mounted radar became law enforcement officers’ preferred tool for catching speeders.
Nowadays in towns and cities across America, patrol cars are deployed elsewhere because unattended, fixed cameras are nabbing speeders in record numbers.
The cameras record the speed limit in the area, how fast the vehicle is going, and the date and time of the offense. And they snap a close-up digital image of the vehicle’s license plate as it whizzes past.
And these cameras -- as well as those that catch drivers who zoom through red lights at intersections -- are lucrative sources of revenue for cash-strapped communities. For example, last year alone, fines paid by drivers caught by speed cameras in a county outside Washington, D.C., brought in more than 13 million dollars.
Police chiefs laud the cameras as life-savers. According to Washington’s chief, Cathy Lanier, traffic deaths in the city have been cut in half in four years. "We see fewer high-speed crashes," she said. "And because of speed enforcement, when people do crash, it’s at a slower speed, so there are less likely to be fatalities."
But opposition to speed cameras is fierce and loud. People across the country argue that the devices are just money makers and that time spent processing images, sending out tickets, and collecting fines pulls police away from crime-fighting.
Besides, the critics argue, habitual speeders quickly learn where cameras are mounted. They slow to the speed limit when passing them, then resume their reckless ways.
Other bitter opponents of speed cameras complain that they violate citizens’ rights. They argue that many times the car’s owner, who’s sent the ticket, wasn’t driving and in some cases didn’t even know someone was using the car.
They point out that the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees Americans the right to face their accusers in a court of law. And for sure the camera will be busy elsewhere should the accused decide to fight the ticket in court.