• Sep 22, 2009
A man wearing a monkey mask, who may or may not be Dave... A man wearing a monkey mask, who may or may not be Dave VonTesmar, drives Dave VonTesmar's Subaru WRX. (Arizona Department of Public Safety)
Someone has been putting on a monkey mask and then whizzing past photo radar devices in the Phoenix area, developing a pretty clear picture of the weaknesses of high-tech traffic enforcement in the process.

Police say that "someone" is Dave VonTesmar, the owner of the white Subaru photographed during the drive-bys. The flight attendant is accused of wearing the mask to conceal his identity while speeding at least 37 times on local freeways.

In an apparent game of cat-and-mouse with law enforcement, VonTesmar admits to acts of civil disobedience. But he neither admits nor denies he was the driver captured by the cameras.

"I would like to tell everyone that there is no proof that I am the driver in all of these photos," VonTesmar told a Phoenix TV station, ABC 15. "I would never admit guilt in that type of situation, but do I own the mask? Yes."

At a minimum, the monkey business has put a spotlight on a key issue: how to identify drivers to a legal certainty in photo radar cases.

About a dozen states and the District of Columbia have camera-based systems to record speeding or red-light violations in one or more of their communities, and their number is growing.

But critics say the systems are more or less indifferent to whether the owner of the vehicle, identified mostly via the license plate number, was actually the driver.

Drivers who didn't commit the offense are often ticketed, they say. The process also gives offending drivers a potential loophole. If they can hide their identities from the cameras, they can argue they weren't driving. And the burden of proof would theoretically be on the police.

Given photo radar's weaknesses, its manufacturers and police departments can only hope people pay the fines without complaint, the opponents say. In short, most people simply have to play ball. Otherwise, the whole structure falls apart.

"'Monkey Man' brilliantly unmasked the flaws in the photo enforcement system," VonTesmar's attorney, Susan Kayler, said in an email interview. "Arizona doesn't have the resources to pursue the thousands who can now do the same."

The main problem is that an officer isn't usually present when the devices are activated. If a car exceeds the speed limit by a set margin, usually by 10 mph or more, cameras take a picture of the driver, the car, and its license plate. The identification of the driver later takes place, often by comparing the photo radar image to the picture on the owner's license. Finally, a citation is issued and delivered to the owner.

But the bad lighting conditions can produce poor pictures, and the identification process is a far cry from the up-front and personal approach of a traffic stop. In many cases, it isn't even a police officer doing the certification of the driver's identity back at the station -- it's the private company that sold the photo radar devices to the locality and then gets revenue from each ticket.

In some jurisdictions, a police department or city employee must take part in the identification process. To some observers, that doesn't come close to meeting the gold standard for identification.

"Because photo radar companies do virtually nothing to verify the identity of the person in the photo, the certification is questionable at best," Kayler wrote in her book, "Smile for the Speed Camera – Photo Radar Exposed."

A similar situation wouldn't be tolerated in other law enforcement scenarios, she wrote. "Just imagine what would happen if you asked a police officer who stopped you to issue the ticket to the registered owner of the vehicle instead of to you."

It's not surprising that the Arizona Department of Public Safety had to go to extra lengths to make their case against VonTesmar. Officers put him under surveillance, repeatedly spotting him as he put on his monkey mask, police said. He has also been photographed wearing a giraffe or gazelle mask.

But surveillance in these cases leads to a tricky ethical situation, Kayler pointed out. Shouldn't police immediately stop drivers doing dangerous things instead of continuing to observe them?

"If this were truly a safety issue, why don't they have patrol cars pulling him over in real time?" agreed Gary Biller, executive director of the National Motorists Association, a group that lobbies for traffic law reform.

"It looks like it is just one corridor where he is being tagged. Why have cameras enforcing this well after the supposed unsafe act? This is a clear indication to me that they are after money and they are not out to make roads safer."

Car owners can contend they weren't the behind the wheel and then fight the tickets. But depending on the jurisdiction or the whim of a judge, they may be asked to identify the actual driver, either before or during a hearing.
Proponents of photo radar aren't likely to be swayed by the legal niceties. They argue that photo radar reduces deaths, accidents and injuries, pure and simple.

In a nine-month photo radar pilot program in Scottsdale, Ariz., in 2006, the proportion of speeders exceeding 75 mph in a 65 mph zone went from 15 percent to less than 2 percent, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

While photo radar does generate extra revenue for city and state coffers at first, the amount decreases as drivers become more law-abiding, said Russ Rader, media relations director at the institute. "They do generate revenue because a lot of people break the law. But the revenue tends to tail off over time."

In mid-September, VonTesmar, who says he has a clean driving record, was waiting for a court date. In an email to AOL Autos, he said, however: "I would never operate my vehicle in an unsafe manner, nor would anyone else who drives my car."

Whatever his identity, the man behind the monkey mask is no hero to some folks. "The people I deal with just consider him to be a big joke, and think he has crossed the line, to be honest with you," said "Radar" Roy Reyer, a retired police officer, blogger and law enforcement radar expert.
With photo radar starting to saturate a few U.S. communities, other people are trying to fool the cameras, whether to protect their wallets or their rights.

"Some have resorted to disguises while others wear big hats," Kayler wrote in her book. "If you move when the photo is taken, it may be too blurry to identify you." Clear plastic covers over license plates can also be used to reflect back a camera flash, making letters and number unreadable. Kayler figures the plastic covers "must work or the photo radar companies wouldn't be so adamantly against their use."

Other activists have taped over the cameras, and garage tinkerers are coming up with inventive counter-measures. On his blog, Reyer has written about one of the more advanced ones: It detects the flash aimed at a license plate from a radar camera and instantly overexposes the photo with its own flash.

Reyer has no trouble understanding the rationale for some of these measures. "To go from my house to Sky Harbor airport, I have to pass 14 of these cameras alongside of the road," he said. "Give me a break. You can't go anywhere anymore without having your picture taken."

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