Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

High-tech ‘street sweeper’ sorts licence plates

with 3 comments

High-tech ‘street sweeper’ sorts licence plates

I think this is a very good idea indeed. It just shows how far we have come in effective enforcement. To give some background, I worked on traffic enforcement issues in the UK back in the eighties. Then we had determined that 80% of the offences are committed by 20% of the offenders – in fact this 80/20 rule crops up in nearly every statistical study of any kind of human behaviour. In the case of traffic (parking, speeding, driving without a licence, insurance or road tax) it was determined that there was a hard core of what the Americans call “scofflaws”. That led to the development of the Denver Boot, and we tried a similar approach in London. Or would have had not the Secretary of State for the Environment at the time, Sir Nicholas Ridley, worried about the potential blow back from the civil liberties groups. So wheel clamps were used for just overstaying a parking meter, which was very effective but had a much wider impact than intended.

The original aim had been to identify vehicles that were known – a cut off was proposed at ten unpaid parking tickets (a common practice in the US at the time). But there were other things we were looking at. For example, one trial of a “stop and look” approach on tax discs (the equivalent of the licence plate sticker used in BC) pretty well brought South London to a standstill one morning. We had picked a length of the Old Kent Road for the trial, but had to abandon the exercise as the police we had with us were quickly overwhelmed. The out of date tax disc was a good indication (we discovered) that the driver had no licence or insurance, or the car had failed its MoT (road worthiness) test or the driver was wanted in connection with other inquiries. Similarly, we found that the same vehicles were parked at broken meters (which gave them a day’s free parking). Just keeping a list of the licence plate numbers adjacent to the broken meter showed the same cars – many of which were operated by Fleet Street’s finest. Or one enterprising plumber who made fifty pence piece shaped lumps of lead that he plugged the meter with so he could work at adjacent premises.

S o I was less than impressed with the way that the CBC radio had this story this morning (it’s not on their web site at present) which had a civil liberties advocate to give that false sense of “balance” to the story, worrying about the Big Brother implications. What needed to be said was that the are people out there who are driving every day, who have been banned from driving. The police even note that these people get back into their cars to drive away from the courthouse where they have just been handed a ban. Car thieves are now being effectively deterred by bait cars. Maybe if the SkyTrain surveillance tapes did not have to be rewound every hour, pickpockets at stations might be caught more often.

And while they may not do much to deter drunks

Naylor said Britain’s roughly 200,000 public CCTV cameras are effective in deterring certain types of crime — such as sophisticated theft rings.

“They deter professional criminals who are very surveillance conscious,” he said.

Exactly. Which is why I think some more effective surveillance is a good idea.

Indeed, it might even be tried inside prisons to restore some sense of order there too.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 10, 2006 at 10:19 am

Posted in Traffic, Transportation

3 Responses

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  1. I am very concerned about the privacy and civil liberties implications of this kind of technology. As long as it is a simple database query to determine whether a car with a particular licence plate should be stopped then I have no objection — that’s actually useful, and is basically a more efficient way of doing something that is now a manual process. But if, say, the GPS coordinates of each licence plate are unconditionally stored as part of the query process then we’ve just created a massive mine-able database of the movements of specific automobiles That is unacceptable in my opinion. For this reason (and others like it) I’d need to see more details of the proposed system before I could support it.


    November 10, 2006 at 4:22 pm

  2. Currently the police have to manually enter a licence plate and wait for a read out. This process simply makes things quicker and less labour intensive. I cannot see much value in a massive database that logs where every vehicle is 24 hours a day – it would cost a lot to store and maintain. But obviously we need appropriate controls over all police activity. I am not sure that Canadians have an especially high regard for their police forces but perhaps that reflects an overly deferential attitude on the part of our elected officials who are supposed to oversee them.

    Stephen Rees

    November 10, 2006 at 8:46 pm

  3. […] profits to be banned I covered this issue a while back, but this story on the BBC web page caught my eye. New Department of Transport guidance says […]

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