County considers video ‘cops’

Harper residents have long complained about the constant threat of ferry-bound vehicles speeding along Southworth drive, and Kitsap County staff now have a potential solution to the problem.

The difficulty is, the solution — video speed enforcement — may prove more unpopular than the crime.

Video traffic enforcement has made headlines in recent months in places such as Hawaii — one of several states now piloting the new technology. The system relies on a mounted camera to snap pictures of cars speeding, running red lights and committing other traffic infractions.

Many drivers have spoken out virulently against the practice, claiming it violates their civil rights. Several lawsuits nationwide have grown out of such camera use.

“It’s not a popular thing, I’ll say that,” said Dave Smith, a traffic engineer for the county.

It is, however, an effective thing.

The system is now being used on a pilot basis in the Tacoma suburb of Lakewood as a means to crack down on drivers who speed in school and construction zones. At its peak, Smith said, each camera unit was writing 1,200 tickets a day. By comparison, a single officer who does nothing else but write tickets could likely only manage eight tickets or so an hour, for a total of about 60 a day.

In the six months the camera has been used in Lakewood, the tickets written have netted $256,000 in revenue for the city.

“It’s a money maker,” Smith said.

The system works by taking a picture of the offending car’s license plate. The license plate pictures are then processed and an appropriate ticket is sent to the registered owner of the car. A commissioned officer must be present at the time the pictures are taken, but only to ensure the equipment is working properly.

Because no actual police work needs to be done, Smith said a civilian volunteer could be given a partial commission to do the supervising job — just as civilians can currently be commissioned to write handicapped violation tickets in parking lots.

“It’s basically a ticket-writing machine,” Smith said.

Even though the system has loophole which allows car owners to refuse the citation if they sign an affidavit stating they were not driving at the time of the violation, Smith said 92 percent pay the ticket anyway.

The violation, however, does not go on the owner’s record even if he or she does pay the fine.

Lest drivers feel the need to start readying their alibis, Smith emphasizes this system as merely a possibility. He pointed out the difficulty of setting up a system as complex — and expensive — as this one. The cost of maintaining just one camera, with accompanying consultants, staff and leased equipment, would cost an estimated $110,000 a year.

“It takes quite a bit of planning to implement a program like that,” he said.

In addition, the county would need legislative permission to start operating video speed traps. The county was not one of the five jurisdictions chosen to pilot the technology and the state legislature is still deciding whether the concept worked well enough to justify its further use.

“We’re just waiting to see if they are going to do it,” Smith said.

Two solutions Harper residents are not going to get are speed bumps and slower speed limits. Southworth Drive is a major arterial and Smith said the county simply cannot make changes that would alter traffic flow that drastically.

In addition, Smith personally doesn’t see the point of lowering the speed limit on a road on which people already speed.

“We get hundreds of phone calls from people complaining about speeders, from every road in the county,” he said. “As long as people are free to do what they want, they will. It’s a social problem — it’s the nature of a free society. I don’t know how to make people behave.”

He added: “It’s a tough problem.”

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