Diane Maxey, an Arizona artist rushing to develop some photos, paid little attention to the white van parked on the roadside.
But when a speeding ticket arrived in the mail, she found out that the innocuous-looking van housed a potent tool: a "photo radar" system that clocked her going well above the speed limit and snapped photos of her face and license plate.
Photo radar, launched more than a decade ago in the Phoenix suburb of Paradise Valley, is beginning to pop up elsewhere across America, bringing controversy as well as the promise of greater safety on the road.
A handful of other Western cities, including Denver, Portland, Ore., and San Jose, Calif., are using photo radar. And the East may get its first taste early next year on the George Washington Parkway in Virginia, if the National Park Service approves equipment it is now testing.
While critics see photo radar as part of a broad erosion of privacy, supporters point to significant safety gains. "It was successful beyond our expectations," says Paradise Valley Police Lt. Ron Warner.
The town, wrestling with increased through traffic and accidents, cut collisions in half. And it's success has encouraged other communities to sign up.
Denver now sends out about 10,000 photo-radar tickets a month. The city has three vans equipped with the gear, and uses them on freeways, major roadways, residential areas, and in school zones. Fines are $40.
"We get a lot of calls against it," says Denver Police Sgt. Dave Levy. "People say, 'Yeah, I was speeding. I was going more than 10 m.p.h. over the speed limit. But that's not a fair way to catch me.' "
"I was angry at first," says Ms. Maxey, the Arizona artist. "But I realized I'd gotten caught doing something I shouldn't, so mostly I was angry with myself."
In one Washington-area poll by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 57 percent of respondents support photo radar. In another, 80 percent of Americans in 10 cities support a similar technology that nabs red-light runners, says Richard Retting, an investigator for the institute, based in Arlington, Va.
But to privacy advocates, the devices are part of a troubling trend in which people spend much of their time - whether at work, shopping, or driving - under a watchful eye.
"It's not reassuring to be told the technology today is only being used for enforcing red lights or speeding," says Barry Steinhardt, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington. "It's a harbinger of things to come - the increasing capability of both government and the private sector to monitor our movements."
He worries, for example, that photo radar and red-light cameras may evolve into continuous video, instead of still shots triggered by evidence of a traffic violation.
"Yes, it's a little bit of an invasion of privacy," says Jack Fleck, a San Francisco traffic engineer. "But 3,000 pounds of steel colliding with your body, that's a real invasion of privacy."
At about $75,000 per intersection, red-light cameras aren't cheap. But they are deemed successful enough that 35 cities are using them. In fact, San Francisco will soon add 20 red-light cameras to its current five, and Washington plans to go from five to 40.
The payoff in safety can be big. Australia, which like Europe has used the technology extensively for two decades, cut red-light running by 40 percent and related collisions by 30 percent, says Mr. Retting of the Insurance Institute. Drivers running red lights cause roughly 260,000 collisions a year in the US.
Retting's own research in Oxnard, Calif., and Fairfax, Va., also found a 40 percent drop in red-light running since 1997.
But in many areas, automated traffic cops are not welcome. Some states require that traffic violations be witnessed by the law officer who writes the ticket.
Meanwhile, lack of support from judges ended photo radar in Pasadena, Calif., about five years ago. "If you threw [a ticket] in the trash, nothing happened to you," says Pasadena Police Cmdr. Bruce Linsenmayer.
Also, a change in state law reduced the portion of the fine that went to pay for the photo-radar system, so the program could no longer pay for itself, he says.
But no state laws will hinder photo radar on the George Washington Parkway. It makes a good test site because it's under federal jurisdiction and has a severe safety problem with speeders, says Richard Compton, a researcher at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
"The speed limit is 35 to 50 m.p.h., but it's not unusual to see people going 80 or 90," he says. His agency will evaluate the effect of the parkway's photo radar on collision and injury rates.
While some motorist groups oppose automated enforcement, it draws support from relatives of accident victims.
Joe Kolkmeyer of Amherst, N.Y., watched his daughter being pulled from a wreck caused by someone running a red light. Though her injuries turned out to be minor, he pushed for state legislation to broaden cities' authorization for red-light cameras.
"If there's anything I can do to help stop this," Mr. Kolkmeyer says, "I will."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society