Monday, June 8, 2009

For Washington-area motorists who live in fear of the flash from a speed camera and the costly ticket that will surely follow, there is hope.

Joe Scott has an answer to their nervous prayers.

The 39-year-old D.C. resident has invented a GPS application that alerts motorists to speed traps and red-light cameras. He is marketing his PhantomAlert software as a way to help motorists avoid becoming entangled in the rapidly expanding web of traffic-enforcement cameras.

“Michigan Avenue at Trinity, or the I-395 tunnel — that camera is vicious,” Mr. Scott said.

Mr. Scott’s program has 10,000 subscribers who together have logged 110,000 speed traps and red-light cameras across the country. The technology is similar to the GPS Angel and Escort Inc.’s Passport, detectors that run off a GPS database of enforcement locations.

These tools can be useful in Virginia and the District, which prohibit radar detector use, and in Maryland, where a new law allows local governments to place speed cameras in highway construction zones and expand their use in school zones. Gov. Martin O’Malley signed the bill May 19.

A small alliance of drivers rights groups is attempting to put the new Maryland law to a statewide referendum. Ronald Ely, editor of, one of the groups participating in the referendum drive, said tools like Mr. Scott’s give motorists a way to fight back to what he calls unfair enforcement.

“Driving laws were negotiated with the assumption they would be enforced by humans,” Mr. Ely said. “When that changes, people need to ask for a change to the laws, or get some kind of technical assistance.”

Randolph Pribgen purchased the PhantomAlert program for his GPS navigator a year ago. It was mostly for safety, he said, but it does help escape the long arm of the law given the growing numbers of speed cameras in Maryland.

“I love kids, so it’s good for school zones,” said Mr. Pribgen, 43, of Newmarket, Md. “Sometimes I’m driving, in outer space somewhere, and that alert just brings me back to Earth.”

The technology alerts Mr. Pribgen a few hundred yards before his car reaches a school, speed camera or known enforcement zone, flashing a red light on his GPS unit and sounding a voice warning.

The drivers who purchase the software help maintain and improve its accuracy by adding new speed traps they spot. The information on the Google map program uploads to Mr. Pribgen’s GPS and tells him the proximity and type of trap he is approaching.

Police departments across the country are not opposed to GPS systems like Mr. Scott’s because they provide public information available on police Web sites.

“[GPS systems] are perfectly acceptable,” said Lucille Baur, a spokeswoman for the Montgomery County Police Department. “We have no desire to hide the location of these cameras.”

Ms. Baur said road signs already warn drivers about the cameras. Montgomery uses red-light cameras and speed cameras on residential roads where the speed limit is 35 mph or lower.

Mr. Scott said his product, available online in versions that cost $40 to $120, is designed to raise awareness and to “help GPS owners to legally avoid unjust traffic tickets.”

He said it is not right to use traffic enforcement cameras as a means to raise revenue. He supports steps California has taken to reduce red-light violations, such as raising fines but lengthening the time of yellow lights.

“But keeping it short, then charging $40 to $50 for the ticket — that smells like revenue to me,” he said.

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