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Caught on camera

New technology used to nab negligent drivers along Highway 99

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Local RCMP aren’t just cracking down on speedy drivers — they’re now using video technology to find stolen vehicles, and to catch people with expired licenses and lapsed insurance.

Two weekends ago, Sea to Sky Traffic Services used Automatic License Plate Recognition (ALPR) technology on Highway 99 in Squamish and Whistler.

ALPR isn’t brand-new technology. It was developed in London, England to help deal with acts of terrorism, and since then has been used in a number of ways by law enforcement agencies throughout the world.

Here’s how it works: a “hotlist” of license plates are uploaded from the ICBC database to a computer onboard a police cruiser, and the vehicle is then deployed to capture images of license plates that enter the camera’s field of view. The camera zeros-in on license plates, and if one from the hotlist is recognized the system operator is notified, the vehicle is pulled over, and the situation is investigated further.

Warren Nelson, Special Projects Coordinator for the RCMP, says this type of technology has actually been used in Europe since 1992, and in some parts of North America for years.

“It’s not new to North America, or even to British Columbia or Canada,” Nelson explained. “It’s just used in different applications.”

The technology is commonly used throughout North America for things like parking enforcement and border security. But Nelson says one of their main uses for the technology is to search for stolen vehicles.

“That was the primary purpose of it, but it also works for whatever other databases are in it, like prohibited drivers and expired insurance and unlicensed drivers and that sort of thing.”

B.C. RCMP first began using ALPR in 2006, and the equipment is available to all of the Lower Mainland detachments and police departments. But two weeks ago was the first time it was used in the Sea to Sky region.

And it led to many drivers being pulled over by RCMP.

“We did it for about three days — so two days in the Squamish area, one in Whistler,” said Cpl. Scott Bowden of Sea to Sky Traffic Services. “It ended up reading over 4,100 plates, and we had 103 hits.”

The ALPR operation was set up in the Whistler area from about 11 a.m. until 5 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 30, which resulted in about 50 stops.

Cpl. Bowden wasn’t sure how many charges were laid as a result of their three-day operation, but explained that each hit doesn’t necessarily mean the driver is in violation of the law. For example, the car may be registered to someone with a suspended license, but a licensed driver may be driving the vehicle.

Nelson said they have four marked patrol cars, and a few unmarked vehicles, which are all equipped with the ALPR systems. The technology isn’t cheap — each device costs almost $30,000 — but they’re capable of checking up to 3,000 plates in one hour, and can capture license plate information of vehicles traveling at speeds of up to 160 kilometres per hour.

“What it really does is make the police more efficient,” explained Nelson.

“We could park a patrol car beside the highway, and as each one of those plates went by, read them out to a dispatcher and then wait for the response.”

Cpl. Bowden says ALPR is a valuable tool for the local police, because they can remind people who have accidentally allowed their license to expire or their insurance to lapse that they need to remedy the situation. But it also helps them catch people who are deliberately flouting the law, but not being pulled over.

“Unfortunately, we have a lot of people that are driving while they’re prohibited… and they’re following the rules of the road for the most part, so there would be no reason to stop them otherwise,” he said.

Cpl. Bowden says RCMP now hope to use the equipment in the Sea to Sky region on a monthly basis, and are planning their next operation in the area during the month of October.

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