Friday, July 06, 2007

A Closer Look at Automated Enforcement: Red Light Cameras/Speed on Green Cameras/Radar-LIDAR Speed Cameras



court martial

One of my favorite episodes of Star Trek (TOS) was a story—by visionary Gene Roddenberry four decades ago—about the perils of using a high-tech witness against Captain Kirk. His trial nearly cost Kirk's entire career and fine reputation of being a Starship Captain. This experienced rocked him to his core beliefs [in himself].

The similarities don't stop there—as the primary charge that Kirk had to face was whether he jettisoned his "friend" Finney out of the observation tube when the defense condition was yellow or red.

The video of Kirk on the bridge, indicated that he ostensibly jettisoned Ben when conditions were simply yellow. That wasn't the way Kirk had remembered it, he was virtually certain the he had given his crew member enough time to get out of the tube and pushed the jettison button when conditions were severe (during a red alert). The [computer video log] evidence suggested otherwise.

Some of Star Treks' most unforgettable dialog—which took place during Kirk's trial— from that episode follows (courtesy of the IMDB):

Captain James T. Kirk: [after listening to Cogley pontificate about books] You have to be either an obsessive crackpot who's escaped from his keeper, or Samuel T. Cogley, attourney at law.
Cogley: Right on both counts. Need a lawyer?
Captain James T. Kirk: I'm afraid so.

Portmaster Stone: [interrupting counsels arguing between themselves] Counsels will kindly direct their remarks to the bench.
Cogley: [moving to the judge's dais] I'd be delighted to, sir. Now that I've got something human to talk about. Rights, sir! Human rights! The Bible, The Code of Hammurabi, and of Justinian, Magna Carta, The Constitution of the United States, Fundamental Declarations of the Martian Colonies, The Statutes of Alpha III. Gentlemen, these documents all speak of rights. Rights of the accused to a trial by his peers, to be represented by counsel, the right of cross-examination. But most importantly, the right to be confronted by the witnesses against him; a right to which my client has been denied.
Areel Shaw: Your Honor, that is ridiculous! We've produced the witnesses in court. My learned opponent had the opportunity to see them, cross-examine them...
Cogley: All but one! The most devastating witness against my client is not a human being; it's a machine, an information system: the computer log of the Enterprise. And I ask this court adjourn and reconvene aboard that vessel.
Areel Shaw: I protest, your honor.
Cogley: And I repeat: I speak of rights! A machine has none; a man must. I ask that my motion be granted. But more than that, gentlemen, in the name of a humanity fadng in the shadow of the machine, I demand it. I demand it!

Cogley's (Roddenberry's, Mankiewicz's) points, of course, were true then as they are today and will be in the future.

Which bring us to something a bit more terrestrial. We are at the nascent stages of very similar technology being deployed here on earth in the 21st century (not 24th! Orwell may have been off by four decades, Roddenberry was off by four centuries!!!).

Like other related automated traffic enforcement systems which are being deployed around the world, red light cameras have recently come to Philadelphia, PA. But just how much public discourse occurred before these systems were put into service.

Was there any real look or discussion into the potential use of such systems to create a situation—where people will be so afraid to run a yellow light—that an unhealthy dynamic may be created which could increase the possibility of rear-end collisions? Will there be public discloser as to how many tickets and how much revenue will be produced [for the city and the manufacturer/operator of such a system]? Is this information subject to the freedom of information act?

If the "name of the game" is enhancing driver safety and accident reduction (noble-sounding goals, of course), then shouldn't the locations of all of these systems be publicly disclosed so that drivers can be situationally aware and be prepared for them, well in advance? Wouldn't this knowledge alone serve as a deterrent [to red light running]? Or is this too logical a thought?

Has society really had an opportunity to vet this new technology? Or is corporate profit-taking really driving the rapid deployment of these new-fangled systems?

Tough questions all, indeed, for which I don't currently have the answers. Perhaps, in time, these answers will come to light (pun intended).

For now, they are an unfortunate reality. So let's have a look at just one such system.

American Traffic Solutions is the manufacturer of the red light camera systems newly deployed in Philadelphia.

Interestingly enough, ATS lists their products as services. Which means a private [for profit] company is in the business of traffic enforcement.

Their mission statement:
"Our mission is to deliver effective technology and services that reduce operating costs or generate revenue that pay for its use." (Emphasis is mine)

The red light camera model deployed is the Axsis™ RLC-300. ATS also produces Axsis™ SC-300 digital radar speed cameras.

I observed these red light camera systems for about two hours on the 4th of July and while it appears that they do utilize a strobe (at a great distance relative to the intersection itself) it appears that these systems are capable of recording a total of 10 seconds of video (5 seconds before and after an alleged violation) which appears to render any countermeasure system relying on a flash or flash-back mechanism entirely useless (if they were ever really effective, in the first place). These systems also appear to have the capability of recording a "violation" from more the one vantage point simultaneously.

One metric measurement I made was the yellow-light transitionl timing between intersections that are controlled by the AXSIS RLC-300 system versus ones that were not on the same primary road, Roosevelt Boulevard.

I am pleased to report that I did not find any discrepancies between the monitored and non-monitored intersections. The timing appeared consistent. Northbound/Southbound travel on the Roosevelt Boulevard appeared to be subject to a 4.5 second yellow-light transition period. Eastbound/Westbound yellow-light transitioning for the cross-roads appeared to be a consistent 3.5 seconds (shorter because of the cross-roads' relatively lower speed limits).

Get the Flash Player to see this player.

Click chapter buttons to view all four videos of the AXSIS RLC-300 in action.

I have heard of some horror stories [from someone familiar with this industry] where yellow-light transitioning was shortened to increase the infraction rates (ie; create more revenue), but in fairness to the manufacturers/municipalities I have never observed such corruption (which doesn't mean the potential isn't there). I hope that doesn't happen, because, while shortening a yellow-light transition may, in fact, create a higher incidence of red light running and higher revenues as a result, it would also dramatically increase the risk for accidents at the very intersections that these systems proclaim to be reducing!

But to be entirely fair to American Traffic Solutions, the Philadelphia Parking Authority, and the city of Philadelphia, aggressive driving, speeding, and red light running have historically occurred on the Boulevard (12 lanes of traffic at times).

I have seen it often, myself, over many years. There have also been a relatively high amount of vehicular/pedestrian accidents as well on this road. Twelve lanes is a lot to cross when on foot, particularly if vehicles are traveling well in-excess of posted limits and/or in an aggressive manner.

Are there better/more effective alternatives to "controlling" this environment and enhancing overall traffic safety? Perhaps.

Simply extending the time by a second or two between red-light/green-light transitions may likely lower incidents of traffic accidents at these intersections in a more dramatic/meaningful way than the utilization of such systems.

Has this ever been tried? If so, have the outcomes been honestly accessed? How about the collective re-timing of a series of red lights which can serve to smooth the flow-rate of traffic? Or the upgrading of the red lights themselves to more sophisticated motion-sense/lane-approach-sense types with adaptive timing depending upon the time of day?

Each of these alternatives would likely be superior since they address the red light running problem at the initial source. The red light systems, themselves.

How many times have you been frustrated when sitting at an extended red-light when no cross traffic exists? How about times when you wish to make a left-turn across the on-coming traffic but not having a left-turn arrow dedicated to the purpose of allowing such traffic flow? Simple fixes, indeed. How about implementing systems like our European friends which systems transition from green-to-yellow-to-red-to-flashing-yellow-to-green. Providing more information to all drivers, from each vantage point, can't be a bad thing.

Is these thoughts too logical? Or isn't there much money in doing such things? Which brings me back to my earlier question, what is the real purpose of these systems?

Could a greater level of manned-enforcement techniques be implemented to not only reduce mere red-light running, but aggressive driving, rapid lane changing, and speeding? All these aspects are likely contributors to accidents involving pedestrians and other vehicles alike. These systems only claim to address just one of these contributors. What about the others? Will signs do it alone?

By having manned enforcement, doesn't that social interaction between enforcement and community enhance overall public safety and cooperation? Don't these automated systems forgo this "halo" effect, since no one [individual] is actually watching?

And finally, when traffic violations occur which are secondary to another primary criminal offense, won't these unmanned automated systems miss these other criminal behaviors that a manned/patrol presence would catch—during a traffic stop?

In a post 9/11 world, can we afford to miss future opportunities to catch another Timothy McVeigh—who was stopped for a traffic violation—and compromise our national security, as a result?

Again, all meaningful questions in search of cogent answers. Why isn't this dialog taking place in the public arena and/or main stream media? Are the "news" media focusing too much on other important news-worthy stories—like Paris Hilton's cell phone call records, instead? (Sorry I even mentioned the name).

Meanwhile, this technology is steadily creeping into our society, without much debate. It appears that the City of Philadelphia is currently piloting this project with American Traffic Solutions in preparation for state-wide deployment!

The AXSIS RLC-300 appears to be positioned about six car lengths away from the beginning of the intersection from each direction being monitored. The digital cameras/video, appears to be located about 12-15 feet in height from the ground with another six feet provided to the strobe for still picture illumination.

These systems appear to be directly connected via some network (the Internet/private VPN) to a locally controlled (by ATS) data center which, I imagine, has immediate access to the data generated (unlike older legacy film-based systems). All very efficient and painless, except for the unsuspecting driver who receives a ticket in the mail well after an "incident" occurs.

There usage is destined to increase in the Philadelphia area (South Philly is on the list) as American Traffic Solutions has established a regional office conveniently in the area to operate these systems. This, no doubt, is a growth market for the bean-counters.

At this point, I honestly, don't now the process for contesting such a ticket (or its legality). Since the condemning/accusing witness is a machine, how can we as citizens of this country [or elsewhere] successfully cross-examine the actual witness [the machine] providing the incriminating "testimony"? Where's the due process in this?

I suspect that evidence brought against an accused defendant doesn't meet certain legal standards (although I am not a lawyer) and is probably unconstitutional as a result. What probably needs to happen is a court challenge which will rise to a State Supreme Court, which will likely be appealed to the Federal Supreme Court to be adjudicated.

If and when that time comes, I hope the likes of the "Supremes" (PDF) will be Star Trek (TOS) fans!

Until such a time, GPS detectors— from the likes of such companies as Escort (with their Passport 9500i radar detector), SpeedCheetah (with their innovative GPS rear-view mirror with radar detector interface), or the Cobra XRS-R9G (and integrated radar/laser/GPS-detector)—seem to be the best defense to the scourge of automated red light cameras, speed-on green cameras, photo radar speed cameras, and photo lidar speed cameras.

Of course, if you find these developments disturbing, don't sit idly by, contact your local representative(s) and voice your concerns. Remember, we each have a powerful leveraging tool— the power of the vote!

And one final point I'd like to make—which I have addressed before on this blog about good driver etiquette as compared to traffic controlling/monitoring systems.

About 40 years ago, I traveled to Bermuda for several weeks. As we drove around the island we came to the only accident that I had seen my entire time, there. Can you guess where the accident was located? You guessed it, the one and only intersection on the island that was controlled by a red light!!! Ironic as hell, isn't it? And something I'll never forget.

Happy and Safe Motoring.

Veil Guy

Related Reading (From all sides):

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Unknown said...

Actually, in Queens where recently all the stop light enforcement was handed over to private companies, there is virtually no time between the yellow and red light transitions. So if you're going at any significant speed, and there's nobody in front of you, it's pretty much impossible to stop at the yellow light. I agree that this makes it extremely dangerous, especially when you're from out of town and don't know that every traffic light is a trap, and that all the locals know about it and slam their breaks to try and stop at a yellow light.

Veil Guy said...


Would it be possible that you could provide some additional information about your Queens red light camera implementation.

Such as: Make and model of RLC system; location of cameras (by intersection); transition timing between each cross-road monitored and corresponding speed limits; and transition timing at an intersection that is not being monitored by an RLC.


Unknown said...

Unfortunately I can't provide as much detail about the system in Queens as you did for Philly. However, I can say that my dad, my cousin, and another family friend all got their pictures mailed to them all during the same week, shortly after that camera was installed. Also, from occasional drive through Queens, I can say that the transition period is really maybe 2 seconds from yellow to red. As I was about to suggest that somebody create a public google map where people can add locations of new light cams in their areas, a quick google search revealed that of course somebody has done that. Check out!

Unknown said...

I was recently served by a process server for a supposed speeding violation that was recorded by a photo radar enforcement camera over 4 months ago. I read somewhere that they had 90 days to serve you in person or the charge became invalid and would be dismissed. Do you know where I can get more info on this?

Veil Guy said...

Perhaps with your state's DOT.

Or, from the following: National Motorists Association