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Today's Recession-Proof Biz: Speed Cameras

In tough times, simple pleasures thrive. This is the era of cheap dates, comfort foods and home entertainment. Maybe you just head out for a drive--but not too fast, because in Maryland, at least, state lawmakers have decided that this is also the time to create a statewide network of speed cams, adding a dose of high-priced reality to your driving experience.

It's been less than two weeks since the Maryland legislature approved the use of gotcha speed cams near schools and highway construction zones, the first big expansion of the cameras' use since Montgomery County was allowed to install its cameras in 2006.

Already, there's a petition drive aimed at forcing a referendum that could overturn the camera program. And now, an enterprising blogger devoted to fighting against speed cameras (you know this is a savvy blogger because he snared a domain might have gone for some big money not that many years ago) has taken a look at the money Maryland legislators have raked in from businesses with a special interest in speed cams. tallied $184,000 in campaign contributions to Maryland's governor and legislators over the past decade from four companies that install and operate speed camera systems. The web site counts $708,000 in donations over the same period from businesses it says have "a direct financial interest in automated ticketing."

But that latter category is rather more broadly defined than the smaller group of four companies that actually make and run gotcha cams. The tally includes donations from several insurance companies, such as State Farm, Geico, and Nationwide, which account for almost $300,000 of the grand total of campaign contributions. It's certainly true that the car insurance industry tends to support speed cams and other devices they believe make driving safer. But insurance companies have all manner of business before the state government, so it's not quite fair to attribute all of their contributions to concern over this one issue.

More important, it's not at all clear that insurance companies profit from speed cams. If cameras do slow down motorists and thereby prevent some accidents, then it makes sense that insurance companies would pay out fewer claims, making their executives happier campers. But the authors of this report argue that insurance companies have a more mercenary interest in supporting speed cams: Insurers, the web site says, "collect millions in extra premium revenue in states like Arizona, California, Colorado and Illinois where certain categories of photo tickets carry license points." So, the argument goes, those companies want to slap ever more drivers with offenses that carry points, the better to charge those motorists higher premiums.

Much as I loathe the craven practices of an industry that discards you as a customer if you dare to use the services you have paid for, I don't see enough of a connection here to saddle the insurance companies with the blame for speed cams. (And I'd consider it credit rather than blame, seeing as how speed cameras have an impressive record of forcing real change in how fast drivers go, at least where cameras are located.) In Maryland, you don't get charged points for a speed cam violation (that's a nice little concession the state makes to the fact that violators don't get to confront their accuser in the traditional sense of the phrase.)

Most of the opposition to speed cams seems to focus on the idea that they are designed more to raise money for the state than to boost road safety. I don't know how you'd actually parse out the relative value of the lawmakers' motivations, but it's probably fair to say that if the state weren't going to make a bundle off the cameras, legislators wouldn't want to take all the heat they get from riled-up drivers on this issue. But what's wrong with raking in a whole load of tax money from speeders? As resistance to taxes has stiffened over the past few decades, governments have turned more and more to taxing sinners and scofflaws. Those fees are hardly equitable, but most people seem to like the idea that smokers, drinkers, tourists, and drivers (drunk and otherwise) are coughing up bucks so the rest of us don't have to.

Surely more of us speed (guilty as charged, your honor) than commit many other violations, so speed cams hit a broader swath of society than some other such taxes masquerading as disincentives. But it's also true that speeding kills, and this just happens to be one of those nice little coincidences in which cash-strapped governments get to do the right thing even as they soak the offenders.

Speed cams: Just one more business we should have gotten into a long, long time ago.

By Marc Fisher |  April 22, 2009; 8:25 AM ET  | Category:  Maryland , Transportation
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Marc, I completely disagree with the "safety" aspect that legislators push as their basis. It's revenue generation at it's simplest. If legislators really want to make a difference and improve safety, driver training needs to be vastly improved. Learning how to avoid accidents, recover from a flat tire, handle skids, etc. I learned practically nothing of these skills in my driver training in Fairfax County. Speeds cameras create at best spotty "safety" improvements. Teach people how to really drive a car, that applies everywhere on our roads. Definitely a NAY to Montgomery County for not doing something that will have much more far reaching benefit. And as for his increase training, pass the cost onto the drivers. Driving was still a privlege and not a right, last time I checked.

Posted by: skynzfan | April 22, 2009 9:24 AM

Camera firms (redflex, etc.) commission the studies from the highway and insurance institutes, then hire the lobbyists to get the laws passed, and then split the revenue with the towns. We (drivers) lose. That's why I bought a gps camera detector ( and am glad I did.

Posted by: macuser25 | April 22, 2009 10:28 AM

Do people think that car companies put air bags and seat belts and crumple zones into their cars because they improve safety? I would argue that they do those things 1) so they meet minimum government-imposed standards, but beyond that 2) so they can tout those features in advertisements and convince you to buy their product. That's a revenue generation motive.

And police officers that traditionally write you a ticket - would they still perform their jobs for free? No? Then that's a revenue generation motive.

Just because an action generates revenue doesn't make it a bad thing. And I'm no expert on the topic, but I would guess speeding is a bigger factor in accidents than blow outs and skids combined.

I'd support 100% speed camera coverage, particularly if traffic engineers setting speed limits didn't have to put in that little extra margin to account for the vast majority (myself included) that they KNOW is going 5-10 mph above the limit.

Posted by: tomsing | April 22, 2009 10:39 AM

As I have now gotten tagged twice (8 and 12 mph over) in six months, I would be okay with speed cameras if they weren't located in areas that they don't noticeably do anything to increase safety. The first time i was out in MC at night and got burned by a camera at the bottom of a long hill. Short of riding the brakes the whole way down, it is hard to not naturally pick up a little speed and go over the speed limit. There was no other entries/exits/driveways in the area. This is clearly just a revenue camera. The second time was a residential road that due to the lack of an on ramp for the outerloop 495 on the rockville pike has to be used to get to the interstate. The legislature would rather have a statistic with revenue tied to it to show their efforts at improving road safety than actually educating and training the public.

Posted by: td_photog | April 22, 2009 10:43 AM

It's clear that it's for revenue generation. If it was about safety, they would lengthen the yellow light times on the intersections. This move is low cost and highly effective. If there's a road with a safety problem, then the problem is the road design, NOT the drivers.

Another indicator that it's about revenue vs. safety is that they didn't make a specific case for a need for the cameras. Did they identify any specific roads or locations? Did the say how bad the safety is in those locations? No! It was we need the cameras now, we'll decide where we can make the most with them later.
The problem is that these programs assume that these cameras are reliable and never make mistakes. They do, and innocent drivers are ticketed all of the time. These programs assume that the camera companies are honest - they often operate the cameras with no regular audit program. Camera vendors have been found guilty of falsifying court documents and altering equipment, as well as breaking state and federal laws. Many programs are actually illegal (including unconstitutional) to begin with and due process rights are severely diminished. Cameras are also an invasion of privacy, and not in the way that most people think... We have the right to NOT be surveilled by cameras attached to identification and tracking systems. In many places, a large majority of drivers are exempt or stand a greatly reduced chance of getting cited by a camera, thus unfairly targeting those who do not hide their face and drive their own cars registered to themselves. It's also been proven in many cases to actually INCREASE the accident rates in locations where cameras are installed. Everyone needs to educate themselves on this issue.

Posted by: photoradarscam | April 22, 2009 10:49 AM

The speed camera's very simply:

(1) Reduce driving speeds in school zones and other pedestrian-heavy areas - improving safety.

(2) Enforce the law in a cost-effective manner - thus SAVING OUR TAX DOLLARS.

(3) Should be managed responsibly by the govt....not contractors. At the very least - proper oversight should occur along with annual independent audits.

For those who oppose th euse of speed camera's:

(1) The camera's basically will get you if you surpass the speed limit by 12 mph or more. So, we are given more than the standard "9 over".

(2) Camera placement is NOT secret. If you know a speed camera is in front of an elementary school, simply DO NOT SPEED by the school.

(3) MD (and all states) are raising taxes due to the long-slumping national economic crisis. WHY would anyone NOT want our laws enforced in a cost-effective unbiased method.


Posted by: free-donny | April 22, 2009 10:50 AM

After a brief review of the literature -- which tends to mix red-light and speed cameras -- I came away thinking that the empirical evidence is mixed on whether the devices make roads safer. Although there is a lot of room for interpretation. So I don't think that it would be conclusive regardless. My feeling is that over the long run with a more general use of cameras, it has to make roads safer. Particularly for pedestrians and cyclists. So I support the measure.

Maybe it is a revenue maker. Roughly, my response is "so what?" As long as no illegal payments are being made, the cameras do target the appropriate population -- people who speed. And speeding is a contributer to many accidents and fatalities often suffered by people obeying the law.

Marc ... I would be interested in seeing you review the red-light and speed camera literature.

Posted by: invisiblehand | April 22, 2009 10:54 AM

This is a question as well as a comment: will the state law supercede local laws/regulations?

The city of Rockville has a permanent installation of speed cameras in front of Wooton High School. However, they are active 24/7, not just on school days/hours. Two members of my family have been literally lit up with tickets during nighttime driving (no big surprise: the speed limit in front of the school is 25 miles an hour on a road where the limit is otherwise 35-40). The cameras were installed with great fanfare after the tragic death of a student who stepped in front of car a few years ago.

Posted by: hfmd | April 22, 2009 10:58 AM

A couple of thoughts:

You stated that speed cameras save lives. I would contend that giving someone a speeding ticket for going 37 in a 30 where isn't saving any lives. There is no noticeable difference between going 30 or 37. If they set the cameras up to the "reckless" threshold, say, 45 in a 30, then you might have something.

You also stated that Maryland does not issue points as part of their ticket program as "a nice little concession the state makes to the fact that violators don't get to confront their accuser in the traditional sense of the phrase". The flip side of this is a presumed guilty status, forcing the vehicle owner to pay up lest their vehicle registration be suspended. It would seem to me that there are potential 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th amendment challenges that could be made with justice dispensed via automated speed cameras.

Finally, you state that there is no real argument against speed cameras other than the arguments that they are revenue generating mechanisms. I would submit that any such financial penalties are inherently unfair on a civil level, as those who have more money can continue to be "scofflaws" while those who do not are penalized disproportionately harsh.

As a matter of course, if someone invents and markets a technology to jam or scatter that radar -- as is only a matter of time -- and Maryland makes it "illegal" to have (like Virginia has done with radar detectors), how would you feel about that? If these cameras are not law enforcement proper, shouldn't motorists have the same right to deny the radar of the camera from effectively violating their person and that of their property (their vehicle) as they would have the right to do with any other non-law enforcement official or mechanism?

Posted by: BurgundyNGold | April 22, 2009 11:00 AM

TD-Photog...I understand.

It seems you were caught where I was ... Randolph Rd btwn Rockville and Wheaton? Randolph Rd is actually residential on both sides...lots of kids in those houses...and the park at the bottom of the hill (though not constantly).

The other spot sounds like on Rockville Pike between the beltway overpass and the White Flint Metro station. I think that one was there because of all the Metro foot traffic ... AND its gonna pull in the CASH!

At this point, many folks know where the cameras are and slow down accordingly...we may not like them, but they get the job done and they pay for themselves (good for the taxpayer).

Though I was bitter for a minute when I got my $40 photo in the mail...I've come to see the horse sense in speed camera use.

Posted by: free-donny | April 22, 2009 11:02 AM

The bigger question is whether the speed limits are realistic in most driving circumstances. While a camera in a school-zone during school hours might serve to slow traffic, can you imagine what would happen if they put a speed camera on I-270, I-95 or the beltway during non-rush hours? I believe Maryland still has a 55 mph limit for the beltway and interstates. As for school zones, does a speed camera in a school-zone on a weekend or holiday make sense?
Before installing speed cameras, make sure speed limits are realistic.

Posted by: jocada | April 22, 2009 11:12 AM

Mr Fisher, it is bizarre that you find "millions in profit" not a direct financial connection for the insurance industry. You cannot deny that the industry collects extra premiums from speed cam tickets in the states where points are imposed. It is a fact.

You assume that speed cams reduce accidents. This is a highly debatable *assumption* -- your own newspaper on page A1 in 2005 showed how red light cams increased accidents in DC. Nonetheless, even if speed cams decreased accidents, that does NOT decrease profit for camera companies. What happens when you get in an accident? Oh yeah, your rates go up.

Insurance companies make money from accidents. An accident-free world would be the death of insurance companies. An accident-filled world is great for the insurance industry. You have it exactly backwards.

Posted by: HateTaxes | April 22, 2009 11:17 AM

We need speed cameras in Arlington Co.

Posted by: tomlang | April 22, 2009 11:24 AM

aside from the other strong arguments why speed cameras are primarily disguised taxation that simultaneously strips us of our right to confront accusers or any measure of due process, they fail at the most basic safety aspect --- they DO NOT get bad or dangerous drivers off the road when it matters ... while they're driving badly.

Unlike an in-person traffic stop, the speed camera will not get the reckless driver off the road, will not be able to tell if the driver is drunk or impaired, etc., etc., etc., --- THAT is what I want my police doing, not writing tickets for someone doing 47 in a 35 zone when the road is empty in the dark of night.

The so-called safety benefits are largely illusory and merely mask a money-making industry that has no incentive to be fair to drivers ... in fact, many jurisdictions lately are going the other way and are dumping speed cameras because they are so problematic.

I have no trouble with red light cameras, but speed cameras are nothing but disguised taxation served up with a load of B.S.

Posted by: fendertweed | April 22, 2009 11:24 AM

One of the main problems with these speed cameras are that they are set up as traps in locations were the speed limit drops dramatically or the speed limit is much lower than the road size allows. For example, a camera has been installed on Georgia Ave in Olney just where the speed limit drops from 50 to 30mph.

Posted by: buffysummers | April 22, 2009 11:25 AM

I wonder, Marc, how you feel about taxes. Do you support new taxes to help deal with the national economic crisis we're in? Or, are you one of those people who've been screaming "No new taxes!" over the last few years? If only our leaders would grow a pair and admit that raising our taxes and closing the loopholes which exempt the wealthy would go a very long way towards eliminating the hardship we are facing. Instead of being honest and expedient, we get these speeding cameras with disingenuous rationalizations for their use. Well, if you and our legislators can see your way clear to support even more speed cameras, which amounts to a flat tax penalty, how come you can't just admit the government needs more money and do the job completely and right in the first place? Using cameras carefully placed to catch drivers when they are most likely to go over the limit and then claiming cameras are used to increase safety is an insult. Employing "Big Brother" to reach into the pockets of tax payers is despicable instead of just saying "Our "way of life", which we are spending billions of dollars a month to defend in Iraq and Afghanistan, has a price beyond sacrificing our soldiers. To create a safety net for everybody in this economy, and to limit future deficits, we have to raise taxes and pay now, not later!" But, No! We get this weak, lame attempt to be able to say "We didn't raise taxes" (even though we need to) when you really did.

These "flat tax fines" affect poorer drivers more unfairly than they do richer drivers who can afford to pay a fine and keep on rolling without blinking! And I, for one, do not welcome Big Brother into any of our lives. Why? Because a heavily surveilled existence with only expensive, secretive and self-serving interests is just not the kind of world I want to live in.

Posted by: iphoenix | April 22, 2009 11:29 AM

Sorry Marc, but you can slice and dice the issue of speed cameras all day long and nothing will convince me these are nothing more than a blatant form of government intrusion into our affairs and a way of pouring millions of new dollars in to the local government coffers (in the case of Mont. County I assume the money is used to offset the idiotic abuse of tax funds to give police tax free disability pensions when many do not deserve them). If the cameras were actually located only near schools, etc. you might have a point in supporting their use. But take a look at where they are placed near Poolsville, set outside of the town and another just before entering the town. These are nothing more than good old fashioned speed traps designed to catch folks coming from White's Ferry or wherever. And they certainly are not near any schools, hospitals or other location where speed control could make sense. These things have to be controlled and their use limited by law and the sooner the better. Enough is enough already.

Posted by: newsmkr | April 22, 2009 11:59 AM

In my MoCo neighborhood (Rockville), speed cameras are a frequent subject of conversation -- always negative. They have done more to reduce trust and damage community-police relations than any other single thing since I have lived here (40+ years). However much money they make, they are definitely not worth the cost. And, no, I haven't been caught by one.

Posted by: qball43 | April 22, 2009 12:29 PM

Presumably, the people who are getting caught by speed cameras are speeding. Don't you give up some of your expectation of privacy when you break the law?

These issues have been discussed when police started using radar guns, and I would guess when they started using airborne patrols as well. I think the real reason behind the complaints is, we like to go fast. We like to be lazy and leave home ten minutes later than we should. We like to get the thrill of speed, and maybe the thrill of breaking the law, as long as there aren't real consequences. The problem is, humans aren't very good at evaluating consequences rationally, which would be fine and dandy, but the consequences of your actions don't only fall on you. And yes, "we" above includes me. If we could count on people to follow the law, we wouldn't need enforcement at all.

Breaking the law because the speed limit is set too low is still breaking the law. Don't complain about the enforcement, complain about the law itself.

Posted by: tomsing | April 22, 2009 12:44 PM

An earlier poster said, "There is no noticeable difference between going 30 or 37."

Um, that's not exactly true: 37 mph is 23.333% more than 30 mph. Since momentum varies as the square of speed, momentum (and therefore stopping distance) at 37 mph is about 52% more than at 30 mph. (At the "reckless" threshold of 45 mph, stopping distance is 2.25 times greater.)

Posted by: ajsmithva | April 22, 2009 12:52 PM

I am confounded by the opposition. By being licensed drivers we agree we will follow speed limit and other laws. Cameras are simply another way for enforcing the law. That jurisdictions may also make money from the fines is a separate consideration and can be dealt with separately (e.g., the jurisdiction cannot net more than a certain amount); but arguing the state should not enforce speed limits with cameras seems curious.

I agree with jocada: if the speed limits are wrong then change the limit. However, ignoring them doesn't seem quite right either.

Posted by: lookingfor2007xc | April 22, 2009 1:01 PM

If you don't like speed cams, you can do what has become an art in Britain: destroy them. This site details the carnage.

Posted by: ksu499 | April 22, 2009 1:19 PM

The people who complain about speed cameras and red light cameras are the same ones, who, if stopped by live officers for these offenses, would whine "Shouldn't the cops be out chasing drug dealers or bank robbers?"

Posted by: conchfc | April 22, 2009 1:30 PM

I have been caught by red light cameras and speed cameras several times, but I cannot fault them. I pushed the yellow lights too far, and I was speeding each time. I ALWAYS speed. I have since I started driving 50 years ago. I "can't drive 55". What defense did I have to any of the fines I paid? None. Yes, they produce revenue, but so what? If you violate the law, you deserve a penalty. Period! Stop whining.

Posted by: Slinger61 | April 22, 2009 2:27 PM

If they really want to convince people that the cameras are about safety, not revenue, they should be prepared to adjust between strict and reckless thresholds based on time of day. You don't need to enforce a school-zone speed limit on a major thoroughfare at 10PM. And you certainly don't need to do so early Sunday morning at 3AM. In fact, I would go so far as to say they can just turn the damn things off altogether and let actual cops do the work at 3AM. At such a late hour, any cops on duty really aren't interested in mild speed infractions; they just want an excuse to pull you over and see if you're drunk. If not, they won't even bother to write you a warning--a common-sense call that the camera-operators have no interest in making. The fact that these "school-zone" cameras are armed 24/7 with the same tolerance level in the middle of the night as during the morning commute while school is in session makes it highly questionable that their PRIMARY goal is "safety".

Don't get me wrong. I'm not looking for an excuse to endanger your child by blowing past an elementary school at 50 mph while your child is trying to cross the street. People should be fined for not respecting school zones, but there is no "school zone" at 3AM. There just isn't. You can't tell me you're making the roads safer by forcing people to slam on the brakes near a school when the building is obviously locked-up for the night.

Never mind that the cameras make mistakes all the time. Maryland tags ran out of the standard 3-letter/3-number combos, so they now mix and match letters and digits in all new tags. Hope you don't have a 5 or S on your plate. Or an O or D. Or a B or 8. Or a 1 or I. Or an O or 0! They're more than happy to fire off a ticket to the owner of a license plate they can't be 100% sure about, and you're going to be the one who's going to have to take time out of your busy schedule to try to find someone to point out that the car in the picture isn't the same make, model, or color as the actual car you own with those actual tags. And God help you if you own a Camry because there's a pretty good chance the other car will also be a Camry.

Posted by: ComfortablyDumb | April 22, 2009 2:32 PM

Buffy Summers, I almost agree with you about the camera in is placed where the GaAve speed limit reduces precipitously. However, it is also placed right before you enter a slice of Olney filled with traffic lights and pedestrian on both sides of GaAve, there. Also, whenever I pass though there, there just happens to be an older fellow in a motorized wheelchair passing through.

That is a tough spot, but once I found out that camera was there...I slow it down - as I notice most other drivers do.

The best way to avoid being ticketed for breaking the law, is to NOT break the law. It only takes me seeing the camera once to adjust and not speed in that spot. Where I drive frequently in Moco, I only encounter five cameras.

Does everyone know where their camera zones are? Probably better to obey the law in those spots.

Posted by: free-donny | April 22, 2009 3:00 PM

First of all, I'm willing to bet those who say "cameras only catch speeders/don't speed and you won't get caught" are a bunch of self-appointed holier-than-thou folks who either don't drive or at least don't drive very much, least of all to commute.

That said, an effective way to combat speed cameras is to use a radar detector - DESPITE laws in DC and VA against them. There are detectors that can be mounted inconspicuously and confuse the "radar detector detcetor" bands used by police. I firmly believe believe that if "they" have to right to monitor the activies of drivers then drivers have a right to know when and where the monitoring is deployed.

And don't give me any of that "driving is a privilege" BS. I'll believe "driving is a privilege" when the state provides me with state-funded insurance and helps me with my car note.

Besides radar detectors, there's a product called Photblocker that obscures license plate characters from a camera's view; spray it on the plate and speed camera photos are rendered unreadable. Go to Photoblocker's web site to order.

I have no problem with red-light cameras. I wish we had more of them. But when a speed camera is set up in an area where the speed limit drops from 50 to 30 mph - as is the case with the camera on Georgia Ave. in Olney - or is "monitored" by a sleeping police officer in an unmarked car on a freeway with an unreasonably low speed limit - like I-395 east in DC, absolutely NO ONE can sell me on the lie that speed cameras exist to "promote safety" and only an idiot or someone who doesn't drive would ever believe such utter nonsense.

Posted by: ceefer66 | April 22, 2009 3:20 PM

"The people who complain about speed cameras and red light cameras are the same ones, who, if stopped by live officers for these offenses, would whine "Shouldn't the cops be out chasing drug dealers or bank robbers?"

Posted by: conchfc | April 22, 2009 1:30 PM "

not quite ... read my post again, I have little problem with red light cameras, speed cameras are a whole 'nother issue for the reasons laid out in various posts here.

Hope you get a couple of photo radar tickets soon so you can see how you like it (I've been driving for 37 yrs. and have never gotten one so you can't say that's why I oppose them).

Posted by: fendertweed | April 22, 2009 4:03 PM

Welcome to Maryland, where we follow the Golden Rule:

Those with the Gold make the Rules.

Posted by: hype1 | April 22, 2009 5:50 PM

An European Union study indicates that speed in not the largest factor in crashes:

"There were relatively few cases in which excess speed was an issue related to accident causation."

Posted by: hype1 | April 22, 2009 6:05 PM

The use of these cameras won't stop in school zones. Like every other "revenue enhancement" technique the government has developed, they'll decide that "if a little is a little good, a lot is a lot gooder". And good luck trying to fight 'em on it; I'm sure gov will make it cost a lot more than it's worth to anyone who argues with them.

Two words: photo blocker.

Posted by: srb2 | April 22, 2009 8:07 PM

I don't think Mythbusters generally performs good science (although they are occasionally entertaining), but they did address the issue of obscuring license plates from cameras a few seasons ago. They came to the conclusion that there wasn't an effective way to do that.

It's kind of simple, really - if your license plate is visible to a cop (as it certainly should be), it will probably be visible to a camera. Photons is photons. The only real difference is, the angle a camera is looking might be higher than a cop would typically view your plate from (depending on where they mount it), and you could possibly take advantage of that. But if that's the case, the next time a cop walks by your car parked at the grocery store or the mall, he'll potentially get that same high angle view of the plate. And then you're busted.

So the point is, I wouldn't go paying money for some "speed camera beater" you find on the internet, any more than I'd pay for a special pill to drop in my gas tank and instantly get 100 mpg. You're probably better off with the radar detector. Or, of course, just not breaking the law to begin with.

Posted by: tomsing | April 23, 2009 8:23 AM

So what if a Virginia Driver gets tagged, but doesn't pay the fine?

Posted by: sasquatchbigfoot | April 23, 2009 12:05 PM

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