Even the most maddening of life's minor irritants - getting a traffic ticket - is going digital as more and more states adapt computer technology to enforce the rules of the road.
The state of Washington in the Pacific Northwest, home to Microsoft and other high-tech icons, is the latest to join the e-ticket trend. It's outfitting several state police cars with devices that permit traffic citations to be processed electronically.
The technology permits a police officer to scan a violator's driver's license and registration, generate a citation and transmit it wirelessly for processing. The only paper produced is a driver's copy printed at the scene of the traffic stop.
Washington 's program is part of an effectiveness study backed by Gov. Chris Gregoire (D) and is expected to expand statewide eventually. On the other side of the country, "eventually" is now. The Maryland General Assembly, which wrapped up its 2007 session in April, agreed to take the Free State's "e-citation" program statewide before adjourning.
From a law enforcement standpoint, the e-ticket trend theoretically offers many advantages, including more accuracy and efficiency besides saving time, money, even lives. Citations that previously might have been thrown out in court because of human error or illegibility (10 percent of all citations according to a University of Pittsburgh Law study) are likelier to stick. Many e-citation systems also include a feature that alerts officers when they are incorrectly filing information.
Proponents also claim time saved through electronic citations lets police spend more time patrolling. A study by Itronix, an e-ticket device manufacturer, showed police officers spend on average 15 minutes issuing paper citations, and the slowest part of the process was the six to nine minutes writing the ticket by hand. Itronix officials said e-citations cut time spent issuing tickets by 44 percent.
Safety is yet another selling point. In 2005, 16 officers were struck and killed by a passing vehicle while writing a traffic ticket. Streamlining the process will lower the risk of such accidents, e-ticket proponents say. In addition, some e-citation programs do not require a driver's signature, reducing the possibility for conflict between officers and motorists.
Janet Ray, spokesperson for the American Automobile Association's Washington state division, supported the technology. "We're always concerned when so many people seem to be driving with suspended licenses and without insurance," she said. "Maybe this is a way of streamlining the entire system and identifying people who shouldn't be driving, who will be taken off the road right then and there." She said that not requiring the driver's signature "raised a little flag" but that she only wants to ensure that drivers can acknowledge their tickets.
It will cost Maryland an estimated $250,000 to run its e-citation program, but officials in Vancouver, British Columbia, say their city saves about $300,000 a year with its streamlined fine collection.
In 2000, Cumberland County, N.C., adopted the inaugural e-citation program. A 2003 study by the U.S. Department of Transportation, in conjunction with two other federal agencies, determined that 27 states were handling citations electronically. Alabama, Idaho, Maryland and Wisconsin join Washington state in adopting the program this year.
Some states are pushing the traffic technology even further - 21 allow drivers to pay tickets online. Drivers need only enter their ticket number to find out the cost of the violation, and they can then pay the fine by credit card.
Some of the devices that generate e-citations let police scan a motorist's fingerprints into a database. Officers making a traffic stop also can use audio, video and photographs to capture the specifics of an infraction, reducing the likelihood drivers can successfully contest their citations.
E-citations present enough advantages for law enforcement officials that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration listed them on its 25 Technology Strategies for Law Enforcement in 2001.