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Why drivers hate photo enforcement

Getting caught by a camera for speeding or running a red light really irks some people. But why can't we just drive better?

By Karen Datko Feb 11, 2010 3:38PM

When we first heard about photo radar years ago, we were perplexed about why it irritated drivers so much. The machine catches you driving 45 mph in a school zone, so pay the fine and slow down, we thought. What’s all the fuss about?


Recent events suggest the fuss is just warming up.

The Virginia legislature is thinking about using photo ticketing to enforce a law limiting traffic on a non-toll road to Dulles International Airport (which includes a hotel and gas station) to those on “airport business.” Drivers have been using the 14-mile stretch to avoid the nearby Dulles Toll Road. The cost of a ticket would range from $50 for a first offense to $600 (fine plus fee) for a fourth or subsequent offense, TheNewspaper reported.


We’ve read one of the bills (.pdf file) and still can’t quite understand how it would work. “Neither bill in the General Assembly closes a major loophole drivers have long exploited. Anyone with airport business can use the access road. Stop at the gas station to buy a cup of coffee, and you're legal,” wrote Sherri Ly at


Drivers elsewhere are fighting back.

  • Apparently, the most vocal opponents live in Arizona, where, TheNewspaper says, an organization instructs motorists about how to avoid getting served in person with a notice to pay a photo-enforcement ticket. That’s required in Arizona if you ignore the mailed citation -- which about 70% of drivers do -- although the state Supreme Court has been asked to change that rule. Good news for camera-hating Arizonans is that the state’s likely new director of public safety has suggested it’s time for photo enforcement to go -- partly because so few people pay the fines. The governor isn’t a fan either. Meanwhile an anti-photo-enforcement citizens group is gathering signatures to put the issue on the ballot.
  • So few people in Dallas were paying photo-enforcement tickets that the local government apparently will put a hold on the vehicle registrations of people who haven’t paid their fines.
  • Here in Montana, the Legislature banned photo enforcement. (FYI: In Montana, many intersections don’t even have stop signs -- always a surprise to newcomers to the state.) Several other states have taken similar actions.
  • In Ohio, four communities have said no to photo enforcement and others may follow.

Photo enforcement, reviled as it is, can be helpful. (We’re not speaking of the revenue that goes into government coffers, which sometimes isn’t much after the photo-enforcement companies take their cut). John Horton at The Plain Dealer in Cleveland wrote:

Supporters extol the safety benefits of traffic cameras and say they help reduce crashes and change driver behavior in a flash. Motorists slow down when they know that a heavy foot on the gas pedal will cost them a few dollars, said Russ Rader, a spokesman with (the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety). They think twice about running red lights, too. Rader cited study after study showing positive -- maybe even life-saving -- results.

KPHO in Arizona reported a 46% drop in crashes on Interstate 10 in Phoenix after cameras were installed. Traffic volume did fall, but only by 11%.

Why is photo enforcement so unpopular? We’ll all be safer when people are more conscientious, no?


Everyone has an opinion. Here are a few we can think of:

  • When a police officer pulls you over, you get to explain why you were speeding. Maybe you had a real reason (baby on the way, kid taken to a hospital). Come on. Usually, you were just driving too fast.
  • Doesn’t photo enforcement vastly change the odds for many people? There is a limit to how many officers are working (in Montana you can drive for hundreds of miles without seeing the highway patrol) but photo-radar machines don’t need sleep. Some people find a certain Big Brother aspect in this that creeps them out.  

Karina Bland in The Arizona Republic observed that initially her fellow citizens embraced the idea. But that changed. “Maybe we've gotten too many citations since then,” she wrote. That includes Karina: She was busted twice by the cameras -- once for speeding and once for a red-light violation -- and had to go to traffic school. Apparently, she was forced to read a driver’s manual she hadn’t seen since she first got her license.


“I came out transformed, ready to drive the speed limit, keep both hands on the steering wheel and leave my cell phone in my purse,” she wrote.


What’s your opinion of photo enforcement? Is this a legitimate way for municipalities and states to enforce traffic laws? Why can’t people simply obey traffic laws? Should we all take a refresher course from time to time on the rules of the road?


Related reading:

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