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The Issue with Automated Speed Enforcement

by on March 10, 2020 4:30 AM

Innocent until proven guilty — I happen to think it’s a wonderful concept. Although the Founding Fathers of our country didn’t specifically state it in our Constitution, the Supreme Court of the United States in 1895 affirmed it as “axiomatic and elementary” to law and “the judicial practice of all civilized nations.”

The United Nations General Assembly made that clear 53 years later, including the presumption of innocence in The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted on December 10, 1948. 

The point is that “innocent until proven guilty” is a basic human right around the world, which is why I have a small issue with a law passed by the Pennsylvania General Assembly in 2018.

Act 86 of 2018 was enacted to implement an “Automated Work Zone Speed Enforcement (AWZSE) program to reduce work zone speeds, change driver behavior and improve work zone safety for workers and motorists.” PennDOT created a special section of their website just for this new AWZSE program. 

In a nutshell, PennDOT, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission and the Pennsylvania State Police are going to achieve these goals by placing automated radar and/or other systems at work zones to detect the speed of passing vehicles. If the system detects a vehicle is more than 11 miles per hour over the speed limit it will capture images of the front and rear of the vehicle, speed limit, speed, location, date, time, etc. No humans involved.

Before we venture any further, let me be clear that I am an absolute advocate for driving safely in work zones – especially those on highways. If you’ve ever volunteered to pick up trash along a highway you immediately become aware that vehicles whizzing close by you at 60 mph seem to be going a lot faster than when your perspective is from inside the vehicle. I’m certain I couldn’t spend my days working in that sort of environment – no matter how much highlight-yellow reflective clothing I wore. 

If it was up to me every construction project on a divided highway would entail crossovers so the moving vehicles would be as far away as possible from the workers. However, given that crossovers cost money, are not physically feasible in some locations and slow down traffic in both directions, I understand their limited use. 

My small concern with this program is clearly not with these very worthwhile goals. In addition, the program was set up to give motorists plenty of warning that the system is in use on a roadway we are driving. There will be at least two warning signs before a work zone where it’s being used and at least one has to indicate the system is active. There must be a sign located at or on the system pointing out its location. And PennDOT will post on their website the locations of the work zones using these systems (none of which are near Happy Valley at the moment). Meaning, if you don’t slow down you really have no excuse.

No, my small issue with this law is the systems they’ll be using, the evidence that will result and the presumption of guilt with no opportunity to prove innocence. 

The systems they will be using to catch speeders are either radio-microwave devices (RADAR) or light detection and ranging devices (LIDAR). Here’s an interesting note: Both systems only need to be tested and calibrated once a year. That’s right, once a year. I have worked with electronics and electronic devices for half-a-century, and as a friend of mine is fond of saying, “They work great right up until they don’t.” I’ve experienced more than enough moments when high-priced pieces of electronics – or entire systems for that matter – just didn’t work. For no apparent rhyme or reason. And then, just as non-apparently, they go back to working perfectly. Without anyone being able to determine what happened.  

I assume the manufacturers of these systems state the calibrations will hold for an entire year of being moved, installed, uninstalled, transported and otherwise being handled not quite as sensitively as you might wish a piece of electronics which can find you guilty would need to be handled. And in most cases they are probably correct. Except, as in many things in life, I got to live on the edge of the bell-curve and drive in front of one system that wasn’t. 

A few years ago I received a notice of infraction for allegedly driving 46 mph in a 35 mph zone in front of an automated speed device. Luckily the place where this occurred required two things that our law does not: two photos taken at a specific interval between them showing the time stamps, and road markings spaced every few feet to identify how far the vehicle traveled between the two photos. It also required that the vehicle in the pictures be the only vehicle in the picture so it was clear no other vehicle was disrupting the system. 

As it was more than 25 years since I had received a speeding ticket (I’ve long since left many youthful indiscretions behind) I was concerned about its validity. Luckily the information provided allowed me to determine my vehicle was traveling 10 mph, not 46 mph as alleged. I even asked a local elected official, who happens to be an engineer, to review my math and findings, and my numbers were confirmed. Satisfied with my evidence I sent it off and my ticket was dismissed.

And therein lies the small rub with our law. It reads:

“A notice of violation based upon inspection of recorded images produced by an automated speed enforcement system and sworn or affirmed by an authorized member of the Pennsylvania State Police shall be prima facie evidence of the facts contained in the notice.”

What that means in plain English is, if your license plate shows up on a picture, as the owner of the vehicle you are guilty, and you only have three defenses to prove you are innocent:

  1. you reported the vehicle stolen prior to the violation, 

  2. you didn’t own the vehicle at the time of the violation, or 

  3. the system was not in compliance with testing for accuracy, certification or calibration.

Since they are required to send you confirmation of No. 3 with the violation, that option is out. The ability to prove that the system was not functioning properly – such as the one I drove in front of – is not available to you. I should note here that you can’t use the “I wasn’t driving excuse” because the violation is civil, not criminal, and goes with the vehicle, not the driver. So you don’t get any points on your license – in case you were wondering. 

In essence you are guilty until proven innocent – and there’s not much of chance of proving yourself innocent.

So here is what I suggest. When the systems are put in place, require a series of five white lines be painted at five-foot intervals in the center of the image that will be recorded. Then set the image recorder to record two images of the vehicle – at an interval of two-tenths-of-a-second between the images. 

At 30 mph a vehicle will travel 8.8 feet in two-tenths of a second, slightly less than two of the painted white lines. At 45 mph it will travel 13.2 feet, just more than two-and-a-half painted lines. At 60 mph it will travel 17.6 feet, or three-and-a-half painted lines. Then provide these time-stamped images along with the violation as additional proof that the vehicle was exceeding the posted speed limit. Sure, it’s possible both the speed detection system and the image recorder malfunction at the same time, but the chances of that are exponentially greater than just one part malfunctioning. 

Then even though you’re still going to be guilty until proven innocent, at least you’ll have better evidence to support your innocence should you be the unlucky person who drives in front of a system when it malfunctions.


John Hook is the president of The Hook Group, a local management consulting firm, and active in several nonprofit organizations. Previously John spent 25 years in executive, management and marketing positions with regional and national firms. John lives in Ferguson Township with his wife Jackie and their two children.
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