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New Speed Trap Gets Help From Above

A satellite-enabled camera system being tested in Britain could keep motorists from circumventing speed traps.

The system, called SpeedSpike, has raised hackles in the British press, particularly in response to its satellite technology. "New speed cameras trap motorists from space," ran an April 20 headline in the Telegraph newspaper.

In reality, the system isn't so extraterrestrial. It uses earth-bound cameras to photograph the license plates of cars and calculate their average speed over long distances. The system uses a global positioning system (GPS) to mark the time and location of the photographs.

The idea, according to a March 30 House of Commons report on the tests, is to enforce speed limits over long distances and to prevent motorists from evading single-point speed traps. Or, in the words of a brochure published by PIPS Technology, the company that manufactures the devices: "If you speed, you get caught."

Speed cameras

Speed cameras are widely accepted in Britain, Paul Watters, head of road and transport policy at the AA, the British Automobile Association, told TechNewsDaily.

Around 5,000 speed cameras are already in use around the country. Statistics show that the cameras prevent traffic fatalities, Watters said, and 70 percent of the AA's membership approves their use.

The SpeedSpike system is being tested in the London borough of Southwark and along a main road in the county of Cornwall, according to the House of Commons report. It's different than current speed cameras in that it can be deployed in networks of up to 1,000 GPS-linked stations. Each camera is the size of a thermos and is cheap to install, PIPS Technology told the House of Commons.

When a car passes a SpeedSpike camera, its license plate is photographed. The cameras are infrared, so they can capture license numbers in any weather at any time of day or night.

When the same car passes another camera, SpeedSpike automatically calculates that car's average speed. If the speed exceeds the posted speed limits in that zone, the license number is flagged. Were SpeedSpike to be adopted for speed limit enforcement, this process would culminate in a ticket in the mail to the vehicle's owner.

Combat air pollution

PIPS Technology's U.K. office did not respond to requests for comment in time for this story. However, the company told the House of Commons that all of the information gathered is encrypted at a higher security standard than is required by the U.K.'s Home Office Scientific Development Branch, which provides scientific advice to Britain's domestic security forces. The company also said that information is not retrieved unless a violation is detected.

As long as security standards are met and motorists are informed of the cameras' locations, SpeedSpike could be helpful, Watters said. Many urban areas in Britain currently rely on road humps to calm traffic, which contribute to air pollution because drivers constantly speed up and slow down. The SpeedSpike network could replace road humps and solve that problem.

There is no public timeline for the testing, but the results of the current U.K. elections could determine SpeedSpike's fate: The Conservative Party has promised that, if elected, they won't add any more speed cameras to British roads.

Meanwhile, drivers across the pond can heave a sigh of relief. A spokesman for PIPS Technology's U.S. headquarters told TechNewsDaily that, while there are single-point speed cameras in the United States, none use SpeedSpike's GPS network technology.

Stephanie Pappas
Stephanie Pappas

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.