By WILLIAM M. BULKELEY
The village of Schaumburg, Ill., installed a camera at Woodfield Mall last November to film cars that were running red lights, then used the footage to issue citations. Results were astonishing. The town issued $1 million in fines in just three months.
But drivers caught by the unforgiving enforcement -- which mainly snared those who didn't come to a full stop before turning right on red -- exploded in anger. Many vowed to stop shopping at the mall unless the camera was turned off. The village stopped monitoring right turns at the intersection in January.
Once a rarity, traffic cameras are filming away across the country. And they're not just focusing their sights on red-light runners. The latest technology includes cameras that keep tabs on highways to catch speeders in the act and infrared license-plate readers that nab ticket and tax scofflaws.
Drivers -- many accusing law enforcement of using spy tactics to trap unsuspecting citizens -- are fighting back with everything from pick axes to camera-blocking Santa Clauses. They're moving beyond radar detectors and CB radios to wage their own tech war against detection, using sprays that promise to blur license numbers and Web sites that plot the cameras' locations and offer tips to beat them.
Cities and states say the devices can improve safety. They also have the added bonus of bringing in revenue in tight times. But critics point to research showing cameras can actually lead to more rear-end accidents because drivers often slam their brakes when they see signs warning them of cameras in the area. Others are angry that the cameras are operated by for-profit companies that typically make around $5,000 per camera each month.
"We're putting law enforcement in the hands of third parties," says Ryan Denke, a Peoria, Ariz., electrical engineer who has started a Web site, Photoradarscam.com, to protest the state's speed cameras. Mr. Denke says he hasn't received a ticket via the cameras. Protests over the cameras aren't new, but they appear to be rising in tandem with the effort to install more. Suppliers estimate that there are now slightly over 3,000 red-light and speed cameras in operation in the U.S., up from about 2,500 a year ago. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says that at the end of last year, 345 U.S. jurisdictions were using red-light cameras, up from 243 in 2007 and 155 in 2006.
One traffic-cam seller, Arizona-based American Traffic Solutions Inc., recently reported it had installed its 1,000th camera, with 500 more under contract in 140 cities and towns. Rival Redflex Holdings Ltd. says it had 1,494 cameras in operation in 21 states at the end of 2008, and expects to top 1,700 by the end of this year.
Municipalities are establishing ever-more-clever snares. Last month, in a push to collect overdue taxes, the City Council in New Britain, Conn., approved the purchase of a $17,000 infrared-camera called "Plate Hunter." Mounted on a police car, the device automatically reads the license plates of every passing car and alerts the officer if the owner has failed to pay traffic tickets or is delinquent on car taxes. Police can then pull the cars over and impound them.
Some entrepreneurs are trying to help camera opponents fight back. Phantom Plate Inc., a Harrisburg, Pa., company, sells Photoblocker spray at $29.99 a can and Photoshield, a plastic skin for a license plate. Both promise to reflect a traffic-camera flash, making the license plate unreadable. California passed a law banning use of the spray and the plate covers, which became effective at the beginning of this year.