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Say 'Cheese,' Speeders: Pasadena to Test Photo Radar

September 17, 1987|ASHLEY DUNN | Times Staff Writer

PASADENA — Along the sun-baked highways around La Marque, Tex., people are still grumbling about the day Robocop hit the streets and made life miserable.

The Texas city's version of the leading character in the movie "Robocop" was a camera-equipped radar unit that clocked the speed of a vehicle and then snapped a picture of the license plate and driver's face.

With cool efficiency, the machine caught hundreds of speeders during its 110-day test, which may have made the streets a little safer but also infuriated motorists.

"You could say there was a good bit of unhappiness," said Jack Nash, a former mayor of La Marque. "When you get a ticket from an officer at least you know you've been had."

The photo radar unit was eventually run out of La Marque because of community outrage, but the device is now headed to Pasadena for a one-day tryout.

In an attempt to find a solution to the city's speeding problem, the Police Department is set to test the Swiss-built Zellweger Uster photographic Doppler radar unit on Sept. 25.

If successful, the city will begin a $27,500, one-month trial, which would make Pasadena the first city in California and the fourth in the country to use the machine for an extended period, according to its U.S. distributor, Traffic Monitoring Technologies.

"We've used very traditional ways of handling traffic in the past. Now it's time for something innovative," said Pasadena Police Cmdr. Gary A. Bennett.

Traffic Monitoring Technologies, headquartered in Friendswood, Tex., claims that the machine is capable of photographing a maximum of 260 speeders an hour--easily eclipsing the two to four tickets an hour that mere humans can manage.

And unlike the human variety of law enforcement, this Swiss Robocop has no penchant for leniency. A photo is taken, a notice of violation is mailed out. End of case.

Bennett said the machine's speed and accuracy has the potential to bring speeders to a screeching halt.

But he conceded that it is an unconventional solution that could stumble on the same problems it faced in La Marque.

Disgruntled Texans ignored violation notices because they had not received the tickets in person. Some registered owners were angry because they received notices of violations that occurred when they were not driving their cars, and the city gained the reputation as a revenue-hungry speed trap.

"It may not be a panacea," Bennett said. "But it is certainly worth trying."

The $42,500 device consists of a standard highway radar unit coupled with a microcomputer, a camera and a flash unit, said Gary Ezell, vice president of marketing for Traffic Monitoring Technologies.

The radar, which can accurately determine the speed of a vehicle traveling anywhere between 15 and 155 m.p.h., is usually mounted at the rear of an innocuous-looking station wagon and pointed toward the road.

A police officer dials in the maximum speed limit and the device automatically photographs anything traveling faster than that, Ezell said. The vehicle's speed, license number, the date and the driver's face are recorded on the photograph, which is snapped within a range of 50 feet. The camera is capable of taking 800 photos before it needs new film.

The radar information is later printed out into a notice that is sent to the registered owner of the car. The photo is saved in case of a legal challenge, Ezell said.

Ezell said as word of the device begins to spread, just the sight of a station wagon loaded with equipment has been enough to slow traffic.

Justice of the Peace Jim Woltz of Galveston County, Texas, said the device has the added benefit of nearly eliminating the steady stream of excuses and court challenges mounted by violators.

"A photograph is pretty darned good evidence," he said. "I'd ask people if they wanted to set a court date, but after seeing the photo, they'd say, 'What the heck for.' "

The machine is now being used in more than 30 countries and will soon begin operation in the City of Paradise Valley, Ariz.

The only other experiments in the United States have been in the City of La Marque and part of Galveston County, including the City of Friendswood.

Neither area reported ecstatic reviews.

Galveston County Constable Paul Bess said, "It won't come back to my area."

La Marque's Nash added, "It's just a screwed up system."

Bess and Nash conceded that the machine helped to slow traffic, but they said there were major problems in enforcing a photo radar violation.

Bess said that during 18 months of sporadic testing, a large portion of the speeders threw away their notices.

The problem is that under Texas law--and in California too, according the Highway Patrol--a photo radar violation notice is not a ticket, which must be signed by the violator.

"They are not tickets. They are not citations," Bess said. "If a person took that letter and threw it away, what do you do?

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