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High-Tech Radar Speed Trap Stirs Controversy

December 10, 1987|ASHLEY DUNN | Times Staff Writer

PASADENA — Altadena resident Jacquelin Warrington, along with hundreds of others, received an innocuous-looking letter last week that left her wondering whether driving has become a little too futuristic for her taste.

The one-page letter stated that she had been caught speeding on a Pasadena street nearly two weeks earlier and that the proof was a photograph on record at the Police Department.

Confused because she had not been stopped by a police officer, Warrington said she had no idea that she had broken the law. Exasperation was not too far behind.

Husband Consulted

"I was just in shock," Warrington said. "I read it three times and after my husband read it, I read it again."

Warrington and about 700 others were the first victims of a device being tested in Pasadena called the Zellweger Uster photographic Doppler radar unit.

The machine, a combination traffic radar and camera, detects vehicles exceeding the speed limit, and then snaps a photo that includes the time, date, speed, location, license number and face of the driver. A violation notice is then mailed to the registered owner of the vehicle.

Pasadena's test of the $42,500, Swiss-built machine is the first in the state and only the fourth in the country.

The efficiency of the machine has prompted Pasadena officials to consider testing another Zellweger Uster device that monitors red-light violations.

"Oh, my goodness," Warrington said. "That will be interesting."

Since the photo radar test began Nov. 11, Pasadena Police Cmdr. Gary A. Bennett said, the device has proved its effectiveness. Of the 9,100 cars that had passed through its beam by Tuesday, 1,075 had been been photographed speeding. About 300 photos were eliminated because the vehicle's license number could not be identified.

Sgt. C. E. Gray, supervisor of the traffic unit, said the more than 700 violations recorded by the machine in three weeks has equaled or bettered the output of the entire 11-member traffic unit over the same period.

"They love it," Gray said of the officers in the traffic unit. "They fight over who gets to take it out."

But the final decision on whether the city will permanently adopt the machine also depends on whether the public is willing to accept this high-tech solution to the old-fashioned problem of speeding.

Bennett said each violation notice (only warning notices are being mailed out during the test period) was accompanied by a survey form asking people for their opinion of the machine.

The first letter the city received was an anonymous note in red ink, complete with illustrations, exhorting the entire Police Department to commit an obscene act.

Victim Backs System

Since then, a somewhat broader range of opinions has been registered.

Gray said about half the respondents supported the use of the machine to help slow traffic on city streets.

Many agreed with Alhambra resident Paul Matossian, who was photographed speeding on the first day of the test and who said in an interview: "I'm all for it. It's a definite deterrent to speeding."

The other half unleashed a bounty of complaints against "Big Brother" watching innocent citizens, invading their privacy and trying to make money in the process.

Alhambra resident Michael Fultz said in an interview that the operation is unfair because drivers are not notified of a violation until weeks after the incident takes place.

It would be difficult to contest a photo radar violation because most people cannot remember the incident, he added.

"By sending people a notice two to three weeks later you've rendered them helpless," he said.

Fultz also questioned the radar's accuracy. He said the machine might snap hundreds of inaccurate photographs if there was a mechanical or electronic problem.

"Anything that man makes is prone to mess up," he said. "Big Brother is watching you in Pasadena. For a while, I didn't even want to drive through that city."

Beverly Wixon, a South Pasadena resident who was caught Nov. 11, said she finds it ridiculous that violation notices are sent to the registered owner of the car.

"I've thought about going down there to take a look at that picture," she said. "How do they know it was me driving?"

Warrington said she is against having a machine sit as judge and jury, deaf to any explanation of why someone was speeding.

Despite their complaints, Fultz, Wixon and Warrington conceded that the machine has caused them to slow down. "But so could a police officer in a car," Wixon said.

If learning to live with the photo radar is not hard enough, drivers may soon face another Zellweger Uster device--this one called the Multafot.

According to Multanova/RPJ Inc. of San Anselmo, the U.S. distributor of the machine, the Multafot is the electronic equivalent of a traffic officer monitoring an intersection for red-light violations.

Through the use of electronic trip wires embedded in the street, the device can detect vehicles that have entered an intersection after the signal light has turned red.

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