Stop cams a sign of the future?

D.C. first big city to test stop-sign enforcement tool

The Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C., recently installed a stop-sign enforcement camera at an intersection near a school. The installation, billed as a test, is to be the first of 31 more such cameras districtwide.

That's right, a stop-sign camera — a device calibrated to detect and photograph all vehicles that don't come to a complete halt before proceeding, as the law requires, then generate a $50 ticket to be mailed to the vehicle's owner.

It's an obvious idea. The Chicago Department of Transportation was reportedly considering it in 2004 as an alternative to speed bumps, intersection islands and other "traffic calming" devices.

Talk about fishing where the fish are. Virtually no one comes to a full stop — where the wheels lock and your head bobs back slightly — at stop signs when there are no pedestrians, cross traffic or police officers present.

People say they do. They may even think they do. But they don't. I've watched carefully for years.

They slow down. They pump their brakes. They perform what's variously known as the "Rhode Island roll" or the "California stop." And they're safely on their way.

Police could write literally 100 tickets an hour for this violation at an intersection near my Northwest Side home every morning as drivers cut through the neighborhood on their way to the Kennedy Expressway. A ticket-cam would be the equivalent of a currency printing machine.

And perhaps because treating a stop sign as though it were a yield sign is so common — and generally such a minor safety concern — Big Brother, with his photo enforcement cameras, has largely chosen to ignore it.

The first and, until the Washington rollout began Aug. 20, only stop-sign camera program in the U.S. has operated since 2007 in the Santa Monica Mountains outside Los Angeles under the auspices of the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority.

Sensors in the pavement detect when a car is traveling faster than 7 mph as it approaches a marked intersection. This activates a video camera, the images from which are later reviewed by park rangers.

And no, despite the location, the half-hearted California stop won't get you out of a $100 ticket. The authority has to share proceeds from the fines with the company that maintains the equipment.

When the program began, officials insisted it was "100 percent about safety," not revenue. Commuters were driving recklessly when using park roads as cut-throughs, said spokeswoman Dash Stolarz. Stop-sign camera revenue has actually fallen in recent years as drivers have gotten wise to them and as commuters have started avoiding the area, Stolarz said.

Washington, D.C., police spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump also stressed safety last week when she said stop-sign cameras are planned only for "locations in the District near schools where flagrant stop-sign running is a significant issue."

Safety concerns are also supposedly why Chicago has 190 intersections monitored by red-light enforcement cameras and will have 50 camera-enforced speed zones by the end of the year, though this claim tends to be the cause of many local coughing fits.

What's next?

"We don't have any plans to do stop-sign cameras," said city spokesman Tom Alexander.

Not yet. But you can bet that officials in cities and suburbs all across America will be monitoring the D.C. experiment closely. How much money will it make? Will a drop in accident statistics justify its expansion? Will the citizens rise up in revolt or, in the end, shrug it off as yet another inevitability in the surveillance society?

Contributing: Tribune editorial board intern Andrea Garcia-Vargas

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