Putting the Brakes on Photo Radar; Authorities Claim Surveillance Cameras Are Slowing Traffic, but Opponents Say These High-Tech Speed Traps Are More about Raising Revenue Than Increasing Safety. (Nation: Camera Rage)

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A battered speed-enforcement camera called a Gatsometer has been smashed and strewn along a lonely stretch of A40, a major road that runs from London westward toward Oxford. According to the British Website www.speedcam.co.uk, these surveillance devices are falling "thick and fast" along what Britons are referring to as "Gatsos Alley"

James Bancroft, age 24, is the creator of the Website. "I've had an interest in speed cameras since ... four years ago" he tells INSIGHT. "I started the Website soon afterward.... As I drive for a living, I recognized it was only a matter of time before I lost my license and my job. As a result, I had bought detectors that warn you when approaching a speed trap." He slows to avoid a summons and then reports locations on the Website.

Unlike Bancroft, not all drivers have avoided such surveillance simply by lowering their speed. "About two years ago I saw a camera lying on the ground, so I took some pictures of it to put on my site" Bancroft says. That was the beginning of his online "Beheaded Gatsos" graveyard of decapitated, burned-out and acid-drenched cameras.

The Old Farmer's Almanac credits Connecticut with enacting the first automobile speed limit on April 21,1901. Violations started, no doubt, shortly thereafter. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), photo enforcement of traffic laws has been in use in Europe for more than 20 years and in the United States for more than a decade. In April, the IIHS released a status report that concluded the use of speed cameras had slowed traffic.

The insurance-industry study claimed injuries in crashes at intersections with traffic signals dropped 29 percent after camera-enforcement began. "Front-into-side collisions--the crash type that's most closely associated with red-light running--were reduced 32 percent overall, and front-into-side crashes involving injuries were reduced 68 percent" the insurers said.

But Richard Diamond, spokesman for House Majority Leader Richard Armey (R-Texas), a conservative lawmaker who is an ardent opponent of the government's use of traffic-photo enforcement, has examined the IIHS findings closely. "Read what they say carefully" Diamond tells INSIGHT. He points out the status report stressed that the cameras made traffic "slower," but only implied that they made the road "safer."

Armey's spokesman carefully refutes the safety claims of camera proponents. He cites coverage of traffic-camera enforcement in Europe, where the system has been in use longer. Diamond says one location studied showed 50 accidents so far this year--the exact number that occurred in the same location without traffic cameras the previous year.

Moreover, Diamond says, speed-camera cars caused three accidents in a single day at one speed trap in Australia. And in the United Kingdom, according to Bancroft, "There was an incident recently when a speeding driver spotted a mobile speed trap and braked so hard his car overturned."

The United Kingdom has had to admit some of the cameras were placed without regard to safety. "They're removing them and relocating them since they got caught red-handed" according to the Armey spokesman.

Already in the United States, Diamond says, some states that have tried photo radar are rejecting it. He lists legislatures and courts in Alaska, Nebraska, New Jersey, Utah, Wisconsin and (most recently) Hawaii as among those that have acted to ban photo radar.

Like most other critics of speed and radar cameras, Diamond suggests that revenue rather than safety is motivating the proliferation of photo enforcement. In two months, he reports as an example, Washington billed motorists well in excess of $40 million as a result of camera surveillance. "That's what this is all about" Diamond says.

Claims by law-enforcement authorities that their primary concern is auto safety are somewhat undermined by evidence of camera inaccuracies and eccentricities. …