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Lights, camera, reaction 

In other cities, drivers have sabotaged traffic snapshots with Post-its, bullets and monkey masks

Rebels of the past donned fedoras, black leather jackets and pantyhose headwear, but take it from 47-year-old flight attendant Dave VonTesmar: Nothing says "F--- the police" quite like a monkey mask.

Across America, law enforcement agencies are using camera technology to catch motorists speeding and running red lights, and ordinary people are responding by finding fresh ways to give a one-fingered salute to the law. When Colorado Springs' first enforcement cameras go up early next year, we may be witness to these antics.

Which brings us back to VonTesmar. Wearing monkey and giraffe masks, and driving a Subaru emblazoned with the words "Bucktooth Racin'," this modern-day Jesse James racked up $6,700 in speeding tickets in Arizona before police finally caught up with him. VonTesmar had been nailed scores of times on photo-radar systems, but he had avoided tickets because Arizona law requires that the in-the-act pictures of an offending driver match the car owner's driver's license photo.

Frustrated, the Arizona Department of Public Safety staked out VonTesmar's house and photographed him putting on his masks before hopping in the Suub. He's been charged and is awaiting trial.

Monkey business

Across the nation, mild-mannered deviants are using special license-plate covers or sprays that promise to cast a glare on your plate, rendering your numbers unidentifiable to cameras. (By the way, those are illegal in Colorado.) Other camera-haters are more, ah, direct. In Knoxville, Tenn., a man shot out a camera with a hunting rifle. In Maryland, the lenses of several cameras were painted over. Across the water in England, some vandals appear to prefer setting cameras on fire.

Arizonans, however, get points for creativity. A Web search reveals video of Arizona vandals dressed in Santa costumes disabling cameras — mostly with wrapping paper. Others have placed Post-its over the lenses of cameras, some with notes like "honest mistake" scribbled on them. In Tucson during the last holiday season, a monkey-masked vandal — no relation to VonTesmar — scaled four poles and bent the support arms of the cameras, pointing them away from traffic.

"Unfortunately for him," Tucson Police Lt. Lew Bentley writes in an e-mail, "he parked his motorcycle within the view of the cameras and we were able to get his license plate and eventually track him down and convict him of criminal damage."

As entertaining as some cat-and-mouse games have been, there are darker stories. Last April, an angry driver shot and killed Doug Georgianni, manning a photo radar van in Phoenix.

Use it or lose it?

Early next year, Colorado Springs will get photo red-light cameras at four yet-to-be-identified dangerous intersections (10 are planned by the end of 2010), and a van that will use photo radar to catch speeders at school zones, construction zones and neighborhood problem spots.

Motorists will be notified by signs that they're approaching cameras. If you're caught speeding or running a red light, a police officer will verify the ticket before mailing it to you. You will be fined $75, but the ticket will not take points off your driver's license.

Word of the cameras has brought a lot of rumors. Some believe yellow lights will be shortened to increase the number of violations. City Traffic Engineer Dave Krauth says there's no truth to that one.

"We set ours to federal standards," he says, noting that the length of yellow lights, 3 to 5.5 seconds, is dictated by a road's speed limit.

Another rumor is that the city sees the cameras as a money-maker. After all, it expects to invest little in the systems, which are leased to the city by a private contractor that takes a flat fee from fines — if the money isn't collected, the contractor isn't paid. And it's projected that 10 cameras could produce more than $1 million a year for the city, even if 20 percent of people don't pay their fines.

But, says Colorado Springs Police Lt. Vince Niski, "We're not really looking at it as a revenue generator. We're looking at it as a way to decrease our crashes at intersections."

A 2007 article for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration noted, "The studies generally reported safety benefits [from camera enforcement systems], but program parameters, sampling and evaluation methodology varied so much that safety effects reported cannot be generalized." So, for instance, Seattle cameras reduced red-light running at monitored intersections by a third, and mitigated the severity — though not the number — of traffic accidents. In Calgary, meanwhile, red-light cameras led to a 48.2 percent reduction in dangerous right-angle crashes.

Go figure.

By the way, cameras may not be as unpopular as the monkey man would have you believe.

In May, Public Opinion Strategies released results from a telephone survey of 800 likely voters across the nation, finding 45 percent of people strongly supported the use of red-light cameras at dangerous intersections. Another 24 percent "somewhat supported" the concept.

Statistics like that are comforting to Niski, who notes that nationally, camera vandalism is rare, and in cities the department looked at, more than 70 percent of people paid their fine after the first notification. Like the rest of the local police department, Niski's hoping the new cameras will prove to be more than an easy target for every smart-ass with an old Halloween costume.

stanley@csindy.com

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