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What is Photo Enforcement, and Why Do You Need It?

November 12, 2016 – Since the first traffic safety cameras hit roadways more than 25 years ago, the public has had a lot of questions about the function and operation of photo enforcement programs. As part of our efforts to educate the public and law enforcement officials about what photo enforcement is, and how it can help improve traffic safety, we’re sharing answers to some of the most common questions we’ve received.

What exactly does “photo enforcement” mean?

“Photo enforcement” is a technology law enforcement agencies can use to enforce existing traffic safety laws. It enables officers to monitor and deter dangerous driving behaviors on a 24/7 basis, such as red-light running, speeding, illegally passing a stopped school bus and crossing railroad tracks while the crossing signal is active.

Photo enforcement systems utilize fixed (stationary) or mobile cameras to monitor passing traffic. They are activated to capture data, including still images and video, if a potential violation is detected. While detection is automatic, violations are not. The data captured by a photo enforcement system undergoes a comprehensive review process, and a law enforcement officer ultimately determines if a violation occurred or not.

How long has photo enforcement been around?

Law enforcement agencies in the United States have relied on photo enforcement to decrease dangerous driving behaviors since the late 1990s. Photo enforcement has been used internationally to improve roadway safety since the 1960s.

What’s the point of photo enforcement?

The primary goal of a photo enforcement program is to improve the safety of people, such as pedestrians, school children, roadside workers, and also drivers and passengers.

The presence and promotion of a photo enforcement system serves as a deterrent to breaking the law and encourages drivers to act cautiously. Photo enforcement also provides law enforcement with an effective means to hold violators accountable and ultimately alter dangerous driving behaviors on select roadways.

Photo enforcement is not intended to operate on all roads or intersections – only in places where the safety need exists. In fact, some municipalities choose to move their systems from one roadway to another as safety in a particular area improves.

How do I know if photo enforcement is needed in my community?

Photo enforcement is a tool law enforcement agencies and city officials can use to achieve traffic safety goals. If a community’s residents and officials agree they have a safety need, all safety tools should be considered, including photo enforcement.

Photo enforcement is designed to improve roadway safety in areas with a high number of crashes or violations resulting from dangerous driving behaviors, such as red-light running, speeding or illegally passing a stopped school bus. It should be considered once all other safety options have been analyzed, implemented and/or optimized. For instance, prior to the installation of a photo enforcement system, intersections and roadways should be well designed from a safety standpoint, speed limits should be set to the appropriate level for the roadway and yellow-light timing should be reviewed. If the danger still exists after all appropriate safety options have been optimized, photo enforcement could help curb the problem.

What makes photo enforcement more effective than other forms of traffic enforcement?

  • Automatic Detection: Photo enforcement cameras are fully automated. No action is required by an officer at the scene to trigger or activate the system.
  • 24/7 Deterrent: The presence of photo enforcement causes drivers to think twice before initiating any risky maneuvers. The camera systems serve as deterrents to breaking the law, 24/7.
  • Police Force Multiplier: Photo enforcement programs serve as “police force multipliers” enabling local officers to refocus their energies on other high-priority tasks while still ensuring the safety and security of problematic intersections around the clock.
  • Crash Prevention: Photo enforcement programs help prevent crashes causing traffic delays, require police, fire and EMT resources, cause property damage and – worst of all – can result in the loss of life.

How does photo enforcement work?

Photo enforcement is an automated technology law enforcement agencies can use to detect and record dangerous driving behaviors. Typically, a two-camera system monitors approaching traffic. The cameras are only triggered to capture data of a vehicle – including a close-up image of the license plate, date of incident and lane number – if a potential violation is detected.

All data is transmitted and encrypted to a secure central processing center and digitally signed, preventing interception and manipulation of the evidence while ensuring the highest level of protection to the chain of custody.

Following a comprehensive review process, law enforcement agencies are provided with secure evidence packages. A local officer reviews and approves the evidence to determine if a violation is warranted.

All photo enforcement systems are programmed to the specific guidelines of local law enforcement and municipal officials in accordance with local, state and federal laws.

I heard photo enforcement is an invasion of privacy. Is that true?

Photo enforcement does not constitute an invasion of privacy, and numerous courts around the country have upheld this view. Photo enforcement operates on public roads only and does not invade private space. When drivers’ receive their licenses, they agree to abide by traffic laws on public roadways that are intended to protect their safety and the safety of others.

Further, any data captured by a photo enforcement camera is only used for law enforcement purposes.

Are photo enforcement cameras recording and saving all activity 24/7/365?

No, photo enforcement cameras continually monitor traffic, but they are only triggered to capture and save data if a potential violation is detected.

Records of violations are only kept for a specified duration established by the respective law enforcement or government agency.

What exactly are the cameras capturing?

Photo enforcement systems are set to capture data specified by the law enforcement agency within local, state and federal guidelines. This data may include photographic stills and video of the vehicle, the license plate, and in some cases, the driver. It can also include the date, time, location, speed and lane number of the incident.

Is the data captured by photo enforcement cameras really secure?

Yes, all data is transmitted and encrypted to a secure central processing server and digitally signed, preventing interception and manipulation of the evidence while ensuring the highest level of protection to the chain of custody. All original images and data are secured in a data vault for safekeeping.

Aren’t cameras just about raising money for the city?

The primary goal of a photo enforcement system is to protect the safety of citizens who utilize the roadways. Since photo enforcement systems are intended to serve as deterrents, successful programs often see a reduction in citations (and therefore a reduction in the amount of money collected). A reduction in photo enforcement revenue is actually a sign the deterrent tactic is working.

Who is responsible for issuing tickets?

The local law enforcement agency is the only entity that can determine if a citation is warranted. Photo enforcement vendors provide officers with secure, comprehensive evidence packages that provide the situational awareness needed to assess whether a ticket should be issued.

What happens when a driver gets a ticket resulting from a photo enforcement violation?

A photo enforcement violation is treated just like any other traffic violation. The driver will be required to contest or pay the citation. Instructions for both options are relayed with the ticket. Some photo enforcement vendors provide convenient options for payment, such as online payments, phone payments and mobile stations where physical payments can be accepted.