Infrared Scans May Regulate HOT Lanes

The scanning device shines an invisible infrared light on people in vehicles to zero in on human skin.
The scanning device shines an invisible infrared light on people in vehicles to zero in on human skin. (Courtesy Of Vehicle Occupancy L - Courtesy Of Vehicle Occupancy L)
By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 1, 2007

Are drivers ready to be scanned like groceries at the supermarket?

The answer will help determine whether Washington area commuters use a planned network of high-occupancy and toll lanes, which will start to take shape next year when an expansion of the Capital Beltway is to begin.

The lanes are billed as the salvation of the suffering commuter. Solo drivers will be able to buy their way around congestion, while carpoolers will ride free. But the lanes' success hinges on finding a way to differentiate between paying and nonpaying customers without stopping every vehicle to count heads.

The private companies that will build and operate the Beltway lanes have proposed using technology that would scan drivers and passengers with bursts of infrared light that detect human skin. The technology is so sophisticated that it can distinguish human faces from decoy dummies and shotgun-riding dogs, according to Ken Daley, a senior vice president at toll road operator Transurban, one of two private companies behind the Beltway project.

"It does it by simply measuring the reflectivity of human skin," said Daley, whose proposal requires the approval of state and federal officials. "I'm very confident it will be there" on the Capital Beltway.

But already, the idea is raising privacy concerns that could make it difficult to get government approval.

Aside from a driver's general unease with being scanned, such equipment raises concerns about possible misuse of images in, say, divorce court or by insurance companies seeking to increase rates for long-haul commuters, said Ginger Goodin, an engineer at the Texas Transportation Institute who oversaw a July study on head-counting for the Federal Highway Administration.

Motorists "feel a sense of privacy in their vehicle, even though they may not really have it if you look at the legal cases," she said.

Still, she noted that drivers can decide whether to subject themselves to the systems. "If they just can't stomach that, then they have their choice, right next to it, to use the general-purpose lane," Goodin said.

Privately run toll roads, the latest trend for transportation officials, are planned for congested cities across the country. Local officials see them as an important way to get drivers out of jams, and they see private money as the key financing method.

In Virginia, HOT lanes are planned for the Beltway between Springfield and Georgetown Pike, Interstates 95 and 395 between Fredericksburg and the District line and, eventually, other major roads. Maryland plans a similar network of express toll lanes that would charge all drivers, including carpoolers.

Yet despite the growing popularity of HOT lanes, enforcement remains a critical challenge. In some cities, including San Diego, enforcement is done manually: California Highway Patrol officers on motorcycles watch drivers from behind concrete barriers, looking for cheaters. Other areas, including Denver, require carpoolers to peel off mid-trip to a designated lane to avoid being charged.

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