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Correction to This Article
A previous version of this story incorrectly attributed a study of Montgomery County's speed cameras to the Maryland state legislature. The study was carried out by a Montgomery County agency.

Controversial speed cameras cause gear-grinding among irked drivers

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All around the nation speed cameras are being put up in an attempt to protect public safety by discouraging speeding. But the public doesn't see it that way. People see these cameras as another inconvenience to their commutes and another source of revenue for cities.

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By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 5, 2009

You rip open the envelope and there it is: Another darned photo-enforcement traffic ticket.

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The photograph, the zoom-in on the tag, it's you, baby. Your car. Two weeks ago. Forty-one in a 30-mph zone.

It's from your favorite municipality. You can pay $40 now or $80 later. You can also contest it, the infraction letter says, and that's a laugh. You remember seeing that the folks who went down to fight their automated tickets in Montgomery County got convicted 99.7 percent of the time. Like a Soviet election, you think, a sham, a joke, and you, the chump in the parade.

There's something that doesn't smell right about these tickets, but you're not quite sure what.

Is it the huge profits the government and their cohorts, the camera manufacturers, make on them? The District doubling the number of tickets it issued just two years ago, raking in $36 million last fiscal year? The fact that Redflex, one of the big manufacturers of these cameras, posted a 48 percent jump in revenue last year while the rest of the economy tanked?

People get worked up. Put these cyborgs on a ballot, and the voters beat them to the pavement.

Three cities Tuesday -- two in Ohio, one in Texas -- voted to rip the things down. In College Station, Tex., the camera manufacturer and their subcontractors reportedly spent $60,000 campaigning to keep them in place, more than five times the amount raised by the opposition, and lost anyway. Voters in Chillicothe, Ohio, went against the cameras at a rate of 72 percent. In Heath, Ohio, the mayor got caught removing anti-camera campaign signs from an intersection. He, and the cameras, got sent packing.

"I'm ecstatic," Jim Ash, the guy in College Station who led the anti-camera campaign.

Nationwide, there have been something like 11 elections on automated enforcement. Your vote total: Revolting Peasants 11, Machines 0.

Yet the cameras multiply like something out of science fiction, like that robot Mr. Smith in a sequel to "The Matrix," like the red weed in "War of the Worlds."

A handful of cities used them a decade ago. Now they're in more than 400, spread across two dozen states. Montgomery County started out with 18 cameras in 2007. Now it has 119. Maryland just took the program statewide last month, and Prince George's is putting up 50. The District started out with a few red light cameras in 1999; now they send out as many automated tickets each year as they have residents, about 580,000.

"They make too much money for cities to just stop using them," says Joe Scott, a D.C. entrepreneur who has developed Phantomalert, a downloadable software for GPS units and an app for smart phones that is updated by subscribers who spot new cameras sprouting up. He started it a few years ago by logging in a couple of hundred cameras in the D.C. region. Subscribers have since uploaded 200,000 more. It's like "Terminator," humans against machines.


CONTINUED     1           >


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