By Louise Story
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
July 1, 2004 - Some of the millions of drivers hitting the road this holiday weekend will face some new surprises.
With budgets under pressure, police across the country are using some unorthodox tactics to ticket people who speed or run red lights. There are several burgeoning categories of enforcement. The most familiar is the cameras that catch speeders and red light runners.
These highly effective tools are being deployed at many more intersections across the country. Police are also increasingly teaming up with officers from other towns to blanket a particular area with ticket-writing officials.
But in a more unusual approach to law enforcement, policemen are starting to don an array of disguises in order to track speeding drivers without attracting attention. Since November, officers in Wilmington, N.C., have dressed up as golfers looking for their ball at the edge of a golf course and disguised themselves as construction workers fixing street lights.
Outfitted with radar guns, they radio ahead to a partner dressed in a normal police uniform, who then tickets the offending drivers. Officers there have adopted the look of a homeless person, wearing a bandana, old Army jacket, and jeans with the knees cut out, a beat-up duffle bag at their side.
State police in Pennsylvania last month also started disguising some officers, dressing them in camouflage and deploying them to wooded areas alongside state roads. In one recent five-hour stretch, they gave out 27 speeding tickets, according to a spokesman from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. Law-enforcement officers in Maine, Florida and other states are also using disguises.
Police and transportation officials say that at a time when budgets have been cut and some resources diverted to federal homeland-security initiatives, these new tactics present a more effective way to curb aggressive driving and make the roads safer.
But some argue that the motivation behind the new vigilance on traffic violations is more revenue-driven than safety-oriented. In some small towns, traffic ticket revenues make up a decent chunk of the budget.
Speeders and law-enforcement officials have long played a game of cat-and-mouse, and some of the latest police tactics are a response to drivers catching on to earlier methods.
In Maine, the state police tried sticking empty police cars in the highway median to try to get drivers to slow down. But as the cars accumulated dust and dirt, drivers quickly concluded there was not a ticketing threat.
The Maine state police have since begun using the officer disguises -- but even now, they're continually on the lookout for new outfits to keep drivers guessing. "I think a lot of them are gimmicky to the point where they don't work for a long term period," says Randall Nichols, an officer in the department's operations division.
Also newly popular are "blitzes," where police from several departments team up on drivers in one town with an unusually high number of cops. That allows towns that are too small to have dedicated traffic officers set up major speed traps.
Surge in Tickets
In January, Avon, Conn., which typically has only five or six officers on duty to handle all police matters, began teaming up with eight other central Connecticut towns to target traffic violators. It borrows a handful of officers to do nothing but give out tickets.
The result: Some 50 to 60 traffic tickets are handed out a day, up from the fewer than 10 that are normally issued, says police chief Peter Agnesi. Police in Utah, New Mexico and Oregon have also led ticketing campaigns in the past year.
Perhaps the most popular new ticketing tools are the cameras, which are set up at intersections or alongside the road to catch both speeders and people who don't stop properly at red lights. The city then mails the tickets to the car owners.
In the past year alone, the number of cities with these cameras has increased to about 100 from 70, according to the two companies that sell most of the devices in the U.S., Affiliated Computer Services Inc. based in Dallas and Redflex Traffic Systems, Inc., of Scottsdale, Ariz.
The list of cities includes everywhere from Paramount, Calif., and Medford, Ore., to bigger cities like Albuquerque, N.M., and Providence, R.I. The city of Baltimore plans to install 18 more red-light cameras on top of the 47 it already has, says David Brown, spokesman for Baltimore City Department of Transportation.
Chicago, which installed the first of 10 red-light cameras in November, says the roads are already safer as a result.
One of the cameras that caught 55 violators on its first day of operation now records 39 on average, says Brian Steele, assistant commissioner of Chicago's Department of Transportation. The city is considering introducing speeding cameras as well, he says.
But another effect of the new tactics is that more tickets are being generated. The Wilmington, N.C., police, for example, typically write 34 tickets a day, but that jumps to 60 when they're using disguises, says Sgt. David Register. Chicago has issued 32,000 tickets just as a result of the new cameras, says Mr. Steele.
Alternative to Tax Hike?
The District of Columbia, for example, raised more than $85 million from traffic violators in its fiscal year 2002, or about 2.5% of its total revenue that year. But in cities with a smaller tax base, that number can shoot up. In the village of Woodstock, Vt., for instance, income from traffic violations amounts to about 15% of revenues.
"You can be ticketing people and that's extra money for you without having to raise taxes," says Eric Skrum, spokesman for the National Motorists Association, based in Waunakee, Wis. He says engineering problems, such as overly short yellow-light times, are behind many of red-light violations. Some cities, he says, don't want to fix the engineering problems because then they'd lose the revenue from the tickets.
Miffed Car Owners
In some cases, the cameras have created controversy. Some drivers in Chicago, for example, complained that they had received tickets in the mail for violations that occurred when someone else was driving their car.
California, one of the earliest states to use the cameras, takes photos of the drivers of the cars as well as the license tags. It charges a fine of between $310 and $361 for drivers who run a red light, and even adds a point to their license. Non-commercial drivers who amass four points from traffic violations of any kind within a year get their licenses suspended.
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