License plate scanning systems make Robocop a reality in some cities

Local governments use camera-equipped cars to search for parking violators, tax scofflaws

Motor vehicle license plates are becoming an increasingly important source of information for some local governments, which are deploying car-mounted mobile technologies that can scan thousands of plates on parked cars per hour.

The initial uses of the scanning systems include helping authorities find stolen vehicles and identify cars that have exceeded parking time limits or that belong to tax and parking ticket scofflaws. But the data collected by the scanners could also be used for other purposes, such as pinpointing the location of known sex offenders.

Mike Belak, CIO at the District of Columbia's Department of Transportation, is running a parking enforcement pilot program that would expand on the D.C. government's existing use of scanning technology to look for the cars of people who haven't paid their parking tickets. Belak said that he is testing systems from three vendors on separate vehicles, a process that he hopes to complete this week.

The goal is "to really leverage technology to help provide better service to our residents," said Belak. He added that the transportation agency, which is known as the DDOT, gets an average of about 3,000 requests each month from residents and businesses that want increased enforcement of parking restrictions in their neighborhoods.

Currently, issuing parking tickets in Washington is a laborious task, according to Belak. Parking enforcement agents have to manually enter license plate numbers into handheld devices in order to keep track of whether vehicles are exceeding posted time limits, he said.

What the DDOT wants, Belak said, is to have camera-equipped vehicles drive around the city, reading plates, marking the locations of cars and recording the time that they are parked in individual spots. Once a suspected violator is flagged by the onboard system, the agent driving the enforcement vehicle could verify the data and then issue a ticket.

Belak wouldn't predict whether the use of the technology would lead to an increase in parking tickets above the 1.3 million that were issued in D.C. last year. That partly depends on motorist behavior, he said. But Belak does expect the enforcement productivity of the city's parking agents to rise at least 50% once the scanning system is in place.

Some cities have already put the technology into production use. For instance, the government in Fredericksburg, Va., is using a system developed by Tannery Creek Systems Inc. that can check two cars per second via cameras that capture images of license plates as well as the shapes of parked vehicles.

A GPS device that Tannery claims is accurate to within a meter marks the locations of parked cars. The system then "compares the characteristics" of the cars in individual spaces the next time it drives by them, in order to determine whether drivers have overstayed their welcome, said Bill Franklin, president of the Concord, Ontario-based vendor.

The D.C. government's venture into digital recognition technology began about two years ago, when the city began using a system from Elsag North America to search for parking ticket scofflaws. That system uses infrared cameras to scan license plates, which are checked against a database on a laptop PC. If the system says a vehicle is eligible for the boot, the enforcement agent first checks to make sure that the tickets haven't been paid since the last time the information in the database was updated.

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