Stephen Rees's blog

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

Licence Plate Readers

with 3 comments

Jeff Nagel

New technology now means that cops do not have to type license plate numbers into their computers. A camera mounted on the patrol car scans the plates and checks them against a database or three. And this is very effective, and catches the sort of people who need to be caught.

More than 70 per cent of hits are unlicensed drivers, 20 per cent are for uninsured vehicles, 8.4 per cent are prohibited drivers and 0.9 per cent are stolen vehicles.

Now for some reason the civil liberties types are worried about this. Let us be clear. A license plate is public information. Anyone can see it, write it down or take a picture of it. There is no reasonable expectation of privacy. Moreover, and this is not said in the article but should have been, nowhere in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms – or anywhere else – is there a right to drive a car. And as I have always been told, it is not a right, it is a privilege, and it can and will be withdrawn if you abuse it.

If you have been banned from driving by the court, society has an absolute right to stop you driving if you defy that ban. If you have no insurance we have a financial necessity and a legitimate safety concern to stop you from threatening our safety and that of our loved ones.

Two incidents from my early career have coloured my views. I once was involved in a survey – some research which as a government economist concerned me – on how much revenue was being lost to people who did not pay for their annual vehicle license. In the UK we then used “tax discs” on the windshield, not license plate stickers. Casual observation on my walk from the station to the office suggested compliance was low, so we asked the Metropolitan Police to help with a survey at the Elephant and Castle – a busy intersection in South London – of the morning commuters grinding slowly up to the roundabout. The police liked this spot as there was somewhere they could pull cars over if they warranted further inspection. After 30 minutes traffic control in Central London called us and asked us to stop. The noncompliance rate with tax discs turned out to be the least of our problems. People were driving unfit vehicles with no insurance and no driver’s licences and the percentage of vehicles pulled out of the flow was similar to that we see here whenever there is a crackdown on truck or taxi safety. And our small sample survey was actually bringing most of south London to a full stop.

Second was the occasion when I attended Snaresbrook Crown Court, where the driver of a vehicle was on trial for driving while unlicensed and uninsured. He was handed a stiff sentence, but it was not custodial. Merely an extension to his existing driving ban. I was standing on the court steps talking to the policeman who had given evidence against him (when I also learned for the first time about his “long string of previous” which was not allowed to be brought up in evidence as it was said to be “prejudical”) when the driver appeared, walked to his car and got in to drive away!

Prior to the introduction of this system, I have also had direct experience of the previous method used in BC. I was driving to work in my old Dodge Caravan, and I was stopped by a patrol car and had to sit, blinded by bright lights while the officer “ran my plate”. His reason for stopping me? Dodge Caravans are popular cars for house breakers to steal as they hold a lot and allow a fast getaway. Now, I am very happy that it is no longer necessary for me to be detained like this. If my plate has been read once or a thousand times, I do not care. And it can stay in the police computers for as long as they like. If that means I can get to work without being hassled – good. But much more significantly, if I can drive, or cycle, or cross, roads that have far fewer criminal and incompetent drivers on them, great. Yes, some needlenoser will one day fall to the temptation to try and make use of this database to find out other stuff. But we can deal with that – we do not need to stop the expansion of a system that will save lives and pain until we are certain it can never be misused. The world is an imperfect place and there are bad people in it. Let’s get the really bad drivers off the road first and then deal with the possibility of naughty spies with suitable security systems.

Oh and if you did not know, license plate cameras and analytical software has been in use for traffic surveys for many years. The plate reader allows traffic engineers to learn how intersections and indeed entire networks are actually used. No one doing such surveys has access to the databases which contain license or insurance information. And they can also be used to catch speeders – but aren’t here – and should be.

Written by Stephen Rees

May 18, 2008 at 5:12 pm

Posted in Traffic

3 Responses

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  1. Another thing I’ve noticed over the years is that many of the people pulled over for motor vehicle infractions have outstanding warrants for other crimes as well.


    May 18, 2008 at 7:10 pm

  2. The concern that the civil liberties types have isn’t around the checking of license plates per se, it’s about the potential for this type of technology to be used for broad-based surveillance purposes. In the UK, for example, license plate scanners are slowly being integrated with both conventional CCTV and newer forms of data collection devices – such as those that work on speech recognition. The technologies, while being introduced incrementally and in isolation from one another, are now being woven together to create a sort of totalizing coverage. The result is an increasingly Orwellian, not to mention phenomenally expensive, solution whose long-term efficacy seems to be… not much better than the conventional approach.

    One technological concern to note: The notion that this type of technology “catches the sort of people who need to be caught.” is only part of it. In fact, the scanners will have the chance to record all the plates that they encounter. These means, in fact, that the movement and activities of any car driver could be detailed on a fairly systematic basis (3000 hits a day per camera x several hundred patrol cars).

    One response to this might the common one that comes up with CCTV – “if you’re not doing anything wrong then what difference does it make.” But this is a pretty slippery slope if you think about it.

    Andrew Pask

    July 7, 2008 at 9:06 pm

  3. Licence plates are far different from CCTV. Driving a car is a privilege. If you don’t want to be monitored, don’t drive.


    July 7, 2008 at 9:35 pm

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