Rules of the Road

Technology exists to ticket tailgaters using cameras, but here’s why we aren’t, yet

Think you're not tailgating? Watch one way police are proving area drivers wrong

Doug Dahl, the Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force, interviews Whatcom County Sheriff's Deputy Lonnie Bauman about efforts to crack down on tailgating to make area roads safer.
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Doug Dahl, the Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force, interviews Whatcom County Sheriff's Deputy Lonnie Bauman about efforts to crack down on tailgating to make area roads safer.

Question: On the topic of tailgating, specifically enforcement: Why couldn’t they use the traffic cameras to watch for this type of activity and then just send out tickets?

There should be a way to develop a formula for determining proper distances. And for the open highway, why not develop drones that could do the same thing?

With all of the new technology it seems that it should not be too difficult to track and identify tailgaters, at least the more egregious ones. Maybe a project for one of the new technology sector institutions.

Answer: Right now, if you were inclined to spend around $6,000, you could order a hand-held device that measures both the speed and the following distance of a car. It’ll also capture photos and video of the violation. The technology is already here.

I haven’t seen it in use as an automated enforcement device, but it’s not because they can’t – it’s because there isn’t a market for the product, at least not in the U.S.

When it comes to products used to enforce laws and catch violators, it’s not just a matter of technological capability and market need. We also have to consider the legal viability and community acceptance of an enforcement tool.

Technology moves faster than the legislature; we have the technology to do a lot of things, but it’s important to consider the legal and social impacts of implementing the technology.

In Washington, the use of automated traffic enforcement is limited by law. The Revised Code of Washington specifies that automated enforcement cameras can be used to detect stop light, railroad crossing and school speed zone violations. Non-school-zone speed cameras are not allowed in Washington, except for one camera in Tacoma. (Odd, but true.)

There is no provision for automated tailgating enforcement. As far as I can tell, no states have authorized automated cameras for tailgating enforcement (thus the lack of the market for the product here), but some other countries do.

In Canada, the province of Ontario is working a project to implement drones for traffic enforcement on provincial highways. They initially plan to use it to monitor carpool and toll lanes, and expect that it will expand to other types of traffic enforcement.

Whether fixed camera or drone, the technology for automated tailgating enforcement is available; we just have to decide if we want to use it.

Despite the allegations, courts have consistently ruled that automated enforcement is constitutional when properly implemented. Where courts have made judgments against automated enforcement, it has been because of problems with how the jurisdiction operated the system.

For example, courts have taken issue with cities that lease automated enforcement equipment and then pay a percentage of each infraction to the equipment owner.

Here’s the problem with that: Our stated goal of enforcement is to reduce violations that could result in crashes, but the company providing the equipment is more profitable if violations increase. It’s as if we’re working against ourselves.

Done right, automated enforcement is constitutionally acceptable, but in many communities there is a lot of resistance to using it.

On a personal economic level, I can easily see opposition to automated enforcement. One camera can catch a lot more violators than one traffic officer, and you can’t talk your way out of a ticket with a robot.

From a broader perspective though, I think if a government builds a transportation system, it has an obligation to protect the users of that system from any mis-users of it.

As a comparison, I was recently at an amusement park. Each time I got onto a roller coaster, I assumed that the engineers used the right math and the builders used the correct fasteners so that it wouldn’t break while I was on the ride. I also expected the staff that closely monitored me and the other riders on the roller coaster, making sure that all our harnesses are secured and that none of us are unfit for the ride.

Our roads are designed by engineers and built to safety standards, like the amusement park roller coaster, but when it comes to enforcement, we’re sporadic at best. We have far more roads than we have officers, so the likelihood of getting caught is fairly low. Less traffic enforcement is correlated with an increase in crashes and fatalities, and the inverse is also true.

Multiple studies in the US have shown that a properly implemented automated speed enforcement program reduces crashes, in some locations by as much as 54 percent.

When it comes down to it, automated tailgating enforcement isn’t dependent on someone inventing new technology; it’s up to citizens and their elected officials to decide if it is a tool they want to use to help make our roads safer.

Road Rules is a regular column on road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices. Doug Dahl is the Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit Ask a question.