Say 'Cheese,' Speeders: Pasadena to Test Photo Radar

Times Staff Writer

Along the sun-baked highways around La Marque, Tex., people are still grumbling about the day Robocop hit the streets and made life miserable.

The Texas city's version of the leading character in the movie "Robocop" was a camera-equipped radar unit that clocked the speed of a vehicle and then snapped a picture of the license plate and driver's face.

With cool efficiency, the machine caught hundreds of speeders during its 110-day test, which may have made the streets a little safer but also infuriated motorists.

"You could say there was a good bit of unhappiness," said Jack Nash, a former mayor of La Marque. "When you get a ticket from an officer at least you know you've been had."

The photo radar unit was eventually run out of La Marque because of community outrage, but the device is now headed to Pasadena for a one-day tryout.

In an attempt to find a solution to the city's speeding problem, the Police Department is set to test the Swiss-built Zellweger Uster photographic Doppler radar unit on Sept. 25.

If successful, the city will begin a $27,500, one-month trial, which would make Pasadena the first city in California and the fourth in the country to use the machine for an extended period, according to its U.S. distributor, Traffic Monitoring Technologies.

"We've used very traditional ways of handling traffic in the past. Now it's time for something innovative," said Pasadena Police Cmdr. Gary A. Bennett.

Traffic Monitoring Technologies, headquartered in Friendswood, Tex., claims that the machine is capable of photographing a maximum of 260 speeders an hour--easily eclipsing the two to four tickets an hour that mere humans can manage.

And unlike the human variety of law enforcement, this Swiss Robocop has no penchant for leniency. A photo is taken, a notice of violation is mailed out. End of case.

Bennett said the machine's speed and accuracy has the potential to bring speeders to a screeching halt.

But he conceded that it is an unconventional solution that could stumble on the same problems it faced in La Marque.

Disgruntled Texans ignored violation notices because they had not received the tickets in person. Some registered owners were angry because they received notices of violations that occurred when they were not driving their cars, and the city gained the reputation as a revenue-hungry speed trap.

"It may not be a panacea," Bennett said. "But it is certainly worth trying."

The $42,500 device consists of a standard highway radar unit coupled with a microcomputer, a camera and a flash unit, said Gary Ezell, vice president of marketing for Traffic Monitoring Technologies.

The radar, which can accurately determine the speed of a vehicle traveling anywhere between 15 and 155 m.p.h., is usually mounted at the rear of an innocuous-looking station wagon and pointed toward the road.

A police officer dials in the maximum speed limit and the device automatically photographs anything traveling faster than that, Ezell said. The vehicle's speed, license number, the date and the driver's face are recorded on the photograph, which is snapped within a range of 50 feet. The camera is capable of taking 800 photos before it needs new film.

The radar information is later printed out into a notice that is sent to the registered owner of the car. The photo is saved in case of a legal challenge, Ezell said.

Ezell said as word of the device begins to spread, just the sight of a station wagon loaded with equipment has been enough to slow traffic.

Justice of the Peace Jim Woltz of Galveston County, Texas, said the device has the added benefit of nearly eliminating the steady stream of excuses and court challenges mounted by violators.

"A photograph is pretty darned good evidence," he said. "I'd ask people if they wanted to set a court date, but after seeing the photo, they'd say, 'What the heck for.' "

The machine is now being used in more than 30 countries and will soon begin operation in the City of Paradise Valley, Ariz.

The only other experiments in the United States have been in the City of La Marque and part of Galveston County, including the City of Friendswood.

Neither area reported ecstatic reviews.

Galveston County Constable Paul Bess said, "It won't come back to my area."

La Marque's Nash added, "It's just a screwed up system."

Bess and Nash conceded that the machine helped to slow traffic, but they said there were major problems in enforcing a photo radar violation.

Bess said that during 18 months of sporadic testing, a large portion of the speeders threw away their notices.

The problem is that under Texas law--and in California too, according the Highway Patrol--a photo radar violation notice is not a ticket, which must be signed by the violator.

"They are not tickets. They are not citations," Bess said. "If a person took that letter and threw it away, what do you do?

"If you got a letter in the mail a month after you drove down some highway, saying that you were going 68 and send $60, what would you do?" Bess asked. "A lot paid, but a lot ignored it."

Of course, the police could track down the registered owner of the car, present the picture, identify the driver and then issue a warrant.

But Bess said the time-consuming process of tracking down violators made doing so impractical.

Pasadena Assistant City Prosecutor Chris Smith agreed that enforcement problems might make use of the machine costly and time consuming.

"I don't see where this is going to save us anything," he said. "It would certainly make my job more involved."

During the test in Galveston County, Manuel Fustes, president of Traffic Monitoring Technologies, said that out of 4,500 speeding drivers photographed, about 25% did not get citation notices because the photos were not clear enough to identify a driver or license plate number.

Of the remaining drivers, 55% paid their fines or went to driving school, 26% ignored the notices, 10% could not be located and 9% are still being reviewed for possible legal action.

Ezell said photo radar is just as successful as traffic citations in terms of collecting fines.

"It's like any other law. If you don't enforce it, people aren't going to pay attention," he said, adding that despite the problems, Galveston County may soon begin using the system countywide.

La Marque Police Chief Larry Crow said he was uneasy about the device because violation notices were sent to registered owners of the car, when, in fact, someone else may have been driving the vehicle when the violation occurred.

In Texas, car owners were not obligated to pay the speeding fine, but they could be subpoenaed to identify the alleged violator and arrested if they ignored the subpoena, Woltz said.

Woltz said no action was taken against car owners in Galveston County unless they were identified as the violators. Fustes said no action was taken against car owners in La Marque who were not driving the car at the time of the violation.

"Why should we be bothering these people when they weren't the violators?" Crow asked.

La Marque City Manager Gary Jackson added, "In some circles, this was seen as a Big Brother-type of thing."

In addition to the enforcement problems, city and law enforcement officials found that the machine generated a rather unsavory reputation for their communities as speed traps.

"I'm certain it's a good system if you want to make money," Bess said. "But you're going to find that the community is going to lose its reputation very quickly."

Crow added, "There were some very, very bad feelings."

Despite these problems, Paradise Valley, Ariz., will start using the device in the next few weeks.

John Baudek, town manager of the community of 11,800 located near Phoenix, said that during a one-day demonstration the photo radar recorded 200 violations, compared to the 700 tickets normally issued in a month.

"You have to do something and this is one of the best tools to get the job done," Baudek said.

Paradise Valley has passed a special municipal ordinance making the car owner responsible for a photo-radar violation. The car owner must either pay the fine or identify the violator in court.

"It's just like a parking ticket," Baudek said. "The owner is liable."

Bennett said he was also optimistic about the device, although he saw it more as one part of an overall strategy to slow traffic.

Working with improved traffic engineering, stricter prosecution and other methods of traffic monitoring, photo radar can play an important but limited role in slowing traffic, Bennett said.

But the machine's detractors still wonder whether the high-tech gizmo is really worth all the trouble.

After all, Bess said, any police department can slow down traffic with a little down-home bluffing.

"Just give me a few old cars with lights on top to park by the side of the road," he said.

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