Radar technology alarming; we might as well accept it

  • William Raspberry / Washington Post columnist
  • Thursday, August 9, 2001 9:00pm
  • Opinion

WASHINGTON — Radar cameras have come to the nation’s capital, and I don’t like it.

And before you get the idea that I’m one of those habitual-speeder scofflaws, upset that I’ll finally have to begin obeying the city’s speed laws, let me tell you that the prospect of reducing the number of dangerous scofflaws is about the only thing I do like about the new program.

You’ve heard of the technology, no doubt. Photo-radar devices, usually mounted on police cars, are rigged to take pictures of vehicles that move too fast through certain checkpoints. The devices then print out pictures of the speeding vehicle, along with location, time, recorded speed and corresponding fine. The tickets will be mailed to the vehicle’s registered owner.

That, as they say, is the good news. Here’s the bad. The radar cameras are purchased and operated — and the tickets issued — by Lockheed Martin IMS. Lockheed Martin has donated the five cruisers (at about $100,000 each) being used in the first phase of the program. As I understand it, it is a Lockheed employee, not a cop, who will show up in court in the unlikely event you contest a ticket.

And how, you may be wondering, does Lockheed Martin get paid for this substantial investment? The company will get $29 for every ticket paid.

Now you think about that: A private, for-profit company with a direct financial interest not in safety but in issuing — and collecting on — tickets.

It is an extension of the problem that has long bothered me about the way the District of Columbia (among other jurisdictions) handles traffic enforcement: as a cash cow.

Ostensibly, parking restrictions are designed to facilitate traffic flow, ensure turnover of metered spaces, and other good things. Too often, though, the enforcement seems calculated primarily to produce revenue. Similarly with other enforcement. I’ve seen police officers and parking-enforcement people lurking in wait for the motorist who fails to come to an absolute stock-still stop at a stop sign or for the red flag to pop up on the meter. Is this about safety? Is this about turning over parking spaces? No, it’s about money. And it is the reason hardly anyone believes cops and meter maids aren’t operating on a quota system.

But at least the cops and meter maids get paid even if you and I obey the law to the absolute letter. Lockheed Martin doesn’t, and that’s a huge worry for me.

So is the difficulty in fighting tickets issued by machines. I mean, what judge is going to believe you and not the emotionless machine? Besides, what sort of witness are you going to make when you don’t even remember the alleged infraction that produced the ticket that arrives in the mail several days later?

And is the Lockheed Martin rep who does have the records of the event likely to admit even the remotest possibility that his machine might be a little off? Not if the company revenue stream depends on collecting the fine.

What this means is that most of us will do what we already do in the case of tickets for infractions we think we didn’t commit: We pay the tickets rather than undertake the inconvenience of contesting them.

Unless, of course, the penalty is too great — either lots of money or license-threatening "points" — in which case the incentive structure shifts. We’ll contest, even if we know we’re guilty, in hope that the cop won’t show up or that the judge will be in a generous mood, or something.

Which is why the operators of our fancy new system won’t issue points — or even serious fines except in the most egregious cases. They wouldn’t want to clutter up the courts or otherwise reduce the likelihood of getting paid.

Still, I’m not comfortable saying no to the technology itself. Old-fashioned radar has problems, too, but I certainly don’t think our highways would be safer without it. What are the alternatives to technology, anyway? Would I rather see a cop speeding up North Capitol Street in pursuit of a speeding motorist or see one of those Lockheed Martin-supplied Crown Victorias parked at North Capitol and Michigan?

And would I rather see lives lost to speeders, when they might have been saved through the use of annoying radar cameras?

Of course not. To paraphrase what has been said in another context, if technology is inevitable, you may as well sit back and enjoy it.

William Raspberry can be reached at The Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, DC 20071-9200 or willrasp@washpost.com.

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