Zero touch traffic enforcement

One of my co-founders at Gridstone Research was driving us back from lunch in San Mateo a month or so back. As he approaches a red light where he is supposed to make a right, he doesn’t come to a full stop. He just ‘rolls’ through the right turn. Flash, flash from the wierd looking gadget across the intersection and a month later he’s got a ticket for $371! He had been caught commiting a traffic violation by technology.

My colleague was none too happy, but I was laughing my head off. Not just  because the guy hates to lose money to such things, but mainly because I had just paid off an identical ticket for an identical violation near my home in Fremont. And my wife had contributed to the same cause a month before me. It was thoroughly enjoyable to see someone else bear the same pain.

I tried to piece together how this technology works. There is a sensor in the road that senses the speed at which you are approaching the intersection when the light is red. If it is above a maximum speed it sets off the camera which takes a frontal picture of you and the car. As soon as you turn right there is another sensor that times how long you took to get from the first sensor to the second sensor and if that time is less than some minimum, it assumes (correctly) that you did not stop at the red light. The camera then flashes again, getting the back side of your car. A couple of weeks later you get a ticket in the mail with all the time-stamped pictures clearly establishing your violation.

When this happened to me (just a few weeks after I had finished making fun of my wife and her ‘rash’ driving), I was upset, but also fascinated. I thought this was just so cool that traffic could be enforced without a police officer. The technology being used is pretty reliable. It does not make mistakes (far fewer than people at any rate). It uses no discretion. Unlike a police officer, it does not let off blondes in convertibles. It is always on. And best of all, it costs far less than the police officer. This, I thought, was great for traffic enforcement. The Fremont Police Department thinks the same way.

But then I thought there’s got to be more to this. I’ve often heard anecdotally that the Highway Patrol gets very strict in its enforcement a couple of weeks before the end of their budget period ends. Why? Because they have revenue targets to meet! You might say that’s not the purpose of the traffic ticket. But in the real world local governments need money to run. I am quite sure that the Red-light Cameras are being sold to the local government by justifying them on an RoI basis. If you invest so much in the camera system, the increased revenue will return your investment so many percent a year. etc. etc.

But wait, it can get better than that. If I was the Red-light camera system company, I wouldn’t even sell it to the city. I’d install it free and take a cut of the revenues. This way everyone wins. The city makes no investment and gets revenue from where it had none. The company gets an annuity, high margin stream of revenue from an unsuspecting public. The Fremont Police Department may proclaim that they are doing this for red-light enforcement. But we know better. Not that I hold it against them. Fremont city underfunds many civic services and I’m happy if they can enforce traffic rules and raise revenues.

That leaves the question – what is this company that makes these camera systems? It turns out that the company that does these red-light camera systems is an Australian company called Redflex Group. Which is unfortunate since my broker doesn’t let me buy Australian stocks. I think they are on to something. Redflex Group has a Traffic Systems business and a Communications business. The holding company’s stock has been doing rather poorly, I don’t know why but the Traffic system business has got to be smoking hot.

And guess what else is available from Redflex? Photo speed enforcement on highways! For those of you who have forgotten what 65 miles an hour feels like, there’s a traffic ticket coming your way.


  1. Santosh Kotnis says:

    This is very informative information as how an automated traffic system works. Heard about these kinds of systems, but never understood the logic and technology behind that. Thanks for sharing this info.
    I witnessed similar tool on my way to Denver International from Fort Collins, CO; they have installed this kind of tool at tool gate. It takes pictures and sends tickets by mail, if you don’t pay tool. Fortunately, I never gave this fine, but when asked, toll collector told me about what was that flashing light!


  2. dexter says:

    i am wondering who could have written the software for it! is it the same company?

    Mastek had done a similar thing for London

    A spy ring of 700 cameras around the city centre are supposed accurately to read the licence plates of vehicles driving into the congestion charge zone.

    These highly-literate cameras relay the information to a secret computer nerve centre, which waits for payment till midnight, after which it sends lists of defaulting number plates to Britain’s Driving Vehicles Licensing Authority (DVLA) in Swansea, Wales.

    The DVLA consults its records and sends out penalty notices, expected to yield a hefty and welcome 30 million pounds in fines.


  3. dexter says:

    the reason i mentioned mastek in the previous post coz its an indian IT company 🙂


  4. rustey says:

    Now a smart BPO company could work with the “free hardware” company to process these photos all across the states.


  5. Sridharan says:

    Redflex would be a disaster if it ever came to India. Transport authority records are yet to be fully automated, besides which the cops would never agree to a system that eliminates them. Yes, it’s the same old problem…


  6. snigdha says:


    could use some of this technology in bombay. interesting blog by the way. also took the liberty to post a link to it on my blog. hope you don’t mind.

    snigdha, bworld


  7. karthik shankar says:

    My suggestion to avoid frustration at red lights – in fact start loving them is to buy a car with a good 0-60 mph pickup. I recently took the Dodge Charger 425 hp SRT on rental, started loving red lights. You get to overwhelm everyone how powerful your car is.Also the push back in your seat when you accelerate is sensuous.I actually started stopping at red light turns. Likewise, I realized I started loving curvy roads after I bought a sports sedan. I could go on.


  8. Karthik Shankar says:

    I have my own theory on traffic cops. Used to get lots of tickets when I drove my old Camry but ironically stopped completely after I started driving a new sports sedan. Old cars at high speeds convince cops the offender has no stake in safety as he has a beat up car anyway. Expensive cars reinforce impression of a driver with higher stake in safety (got more to lose in a crash).Aesthetics also plays a factor in whom to rake in and whom to let go.


  9. joseph says:

    the article is quite interesting
    i live in melbourne and work for a firm that is very pro-open source
    we use sugar crm for most sales related activities.
    Several million dollars have been paid back in fines by the governments of Victoria and NSW (New South Wales).

    the technology has a lot of flaws and aussies have learnt to beat the system some of the time.


  10. Legal'ing around says:

    It’s against California State law to share revenue with an enforcement company, on behalf of the city, if the contract was signed prior to 2004.


    It’s a great argument in court. *hint hint*


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