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How to Catch the Scofflaws

December 16, 1987

The first tests in California of an automated device for catching speeders will be completed Friday. The results thus far are impressive. Clearly this is a highly cost-effective instrument for making speed limits meaningful, and it should be adopted promptly by every jurisdiction.

But don't count on it. Already rumblings of "entrapment" and "Big Brother" are being heard from those who regard posted speed limits as a challenge for cheating rather than as a proposal for saving lives. This is a nation, after all, that spends millions of dollars every year on radar-detection devices designed to permit drivers to exceed speed limits with impunity.

The new machine is made by a Swiss firm, Zellweger Uster, combining doppler radar and camera to record speed-limit violations. The device records the time, place and speed, and films both the license plate and the image of the driver of the offending vehicle. Once the film is processed, the police merely check the license plate against state records and mail off a notice of the violation.

Pasadena police, who are conducting the first test, applauded the effectiveness of the machine. In the first run of 9,100 cars, the machine detected 1,075 speeding violations. In the test period, offenders are merely mailed a warning and are not faced with either a fine or a court appearance. Even at $42,500 a copy, the machine represents a significant saving as opposed to the cost of conventional enforcement. Furthermore, it reduces the danger to personnel who are faced with hot pursuits on motorcycles.

First responses to the test in Pasadena have been mixed. Neighborhood Watch committees give the machines a 90% approval rate. But even among those who have received mailed warnings the approval rate has been 50%. "Still, there are a lot of motorists who want a chance to talk themselves out of the ticket, and they want to see the officer face to face," Comdr. Gary A. Bennett of the Pasadena Police Department said.

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