Machines, Fines, Handcuffs

A February 13, 2015 NPR Podcast "Invisibilia" opens with Steve Barkley, who relays a human-less interaction in the early 1990s link . When notified by mail of a speeding ticket done via photo radar, Barkley is enraged that this has happened automatically, w/o human intervention.

"I felt violated because no human was involved in this whole ordeal. And I thought, wow, this is like - this is very robots-take-over-the-world type of thing."

His reaction was clever. "He thought, OK, machine, you want to take a picture of me speeding? Well, then here's a picture of money. I took two 20s and a 5, Xeroxed them and sent it back to them."

Weeks later he gets a response back, a single page of something xeroxed- an image of handcuffs.


BARKLEY: And I looked at it, and I thought, touche, sir, well done, well played. This guy's got a sense of humor. I like this. And because of that... MILLER: Proof of an actual human being playing with him at the other end of the computers. BARKLEY: ...I mailed in the fine.


Photo radar was popularized early in the Phoenix area, installed in the town of Paradise Valley. The Invisiblia podcast suggests California and this town of Campbell was one of the first police departments to set this up, but Paradise Valley states they were the first in the nation to set up photo radar in 1987 link

Interestingly, while the speed measurement and the photo process was automated, the whole rig sat in an unmarked van parked on the side of the road, and there was always a human operator inside-- I am pretty sure they had no duty except to make sure the machine was on and pointed. I imagined them reading books, knitting, eating potato chips while The Machine did the work.

My Scottsdale AZ photo radar portrait, (edited) 2004

I got my first photo radar ticket in 2004, in Scottsdale AZ. I know because I wrote a blog post link

The photo was super grainy, but I could not argue it wasn't me. By the time of my last one (2012), what came in the mail was also a link to a web site with a very clear photo AND a bit of video showing my truck going past the machine.

Research into the history and cultural reactions to speed cameras in the US, UK and Australia uses Goldenbeld's Four Dilemmas as an evaluative framework. These dilemmas are potentially useful for any technology evaluation project.