When they catch you, and they sure as hell will catch you, you will be blowing through the intersection and the light will be red and you will be thinking, "Shit, did that sign really just say 'Photo Enforced Intersection?'" And in your rearview mirror you will catch the faint after-flash of a camera, two or three cameras, actually, and right then and there they will have your red-light-running ass.
But there will be no bank of monitors or crews of hooting cops or Big Brothers in a watchtower on the edge of town, there will just be 42-year-old Matt Hanna, sitting in his white tank top, blue jeans, and stocking feet, smoking his cigarettes, watching TV and your feeble little brake lights on his laptop computer in his spartan bachelor apartment in Coon Rapids.
You're screwed, dude. To the tune of $130. You went through a red light at one of the 16 Minneapolis intersections Hanna monitors for the city, and he can prove it. He works for Red Flex Traffic Systems, the Scottsdale, Arizona-based company that the city pays $60,000 a month to keep an eye on everything. Which is chicken feed considering the city took in an estimated $780,000 last month from 6,000 Hanna-captured traffic violations.
Along with you and the 10,251 "approaches" he sifts through every month, Hanna can monitor intersections in 59 cities, including Council Bluffs, Iowa, where he's responsible for seven intersections. But other than Minneapolis and Council Bluffs, he doesn't care about spying on other locales. He wants you.
He doesn't have a quota, but he and his colleagues around the country have a certain amount of gotchas they need to get to keep their bosses happy, so they work hard to maintain the software and cameras. The most prosecutable violations are the ones that have photos of you and your car clearly going through the red light, a streaming video of the crime, and a clear shot of your license plate. The mechanisms at each intersection are also rigged to nail cars that turn on red lights, but the cops throw most of those out, because they're too difficult to prosecute.
So Hanna sits and waits. For you and everybody else hurrying on their way to work and play and school and day care, to go through a red light. When you do, the mechanism is triggered, the photos are taken, and, if everything is working properly, it all gets bundled into one file and put in the download folder on Hanna's modest Dell computer. Then it pops up like an e-mail.
"Ten to one, this'll be a safe turn on red," he says, inching up on the edge of his couch, fiddling with the laptop's mouse and looking at the screen fixed on 35th Street and First Avenue South. "Ooh, no. It's a taxicab. See, there's the red light, behind the line, into the intersection--oh, look at that [license plate]. Now that's sweet: You can zoom in if you have to, but that one I really didn't have to."
He clicks over to the streaming video.
"Now I make sure there's a video, and...watch the light, and see? Red. All red. That's a good one. That cost him a hundred and thirty bucks. That guy's nailed. So is that guy, so is that guy."
Oh, don't be pissed at him; be pissed at the city, and the cops, and yourself. But if you do want to kill the messenger, you've got your chance. Almost every day, Hanna dons his orange vest and climbs into his Wrangler jeep--the rearview mirror of which is draped with bead necklaces he scored at the country music bacchanalia known as We Fest--and heads over to the sites to fix his cameras, or his computers that are housed in cabinets on the sidewalk.
Which is what he did the other day on Broadway and North Lyndale, as dozens of people milled around and gawked at him from the gas station, bus stop, White Castle, and Broadway Center while he opened the cabinet and checked the computer. The other day, a guy rolled down his window and yelled, "Get that shit out of the 'hood! Bring it to Edina!"
Then there are the countless leather-lungs who yell stuff like, "You commie bastard! You're watching over us!" And the angry someone who, in the middle of the night, broke the lock on the door of the cabinet on 11th and Hennepin, tried to mess with the computer, and ended up taking off a manhole cover on the sidewalk and cutting one of the wires.
Which is an awful lot of work, especially since Hanna is willing to offer some tips: If you're gonna go through a red light, go through it at 10 miles an hour, because the slats on the street are only triggered when a vehicle is going 15 mph. Avoid 35th Street and Second Avenue, and Broadway and Washington, his two most popular intersections. Go to St. Paul--for the time being, anyway, since his company is in talks with the city. Do your deed in 20-below weather, over snow-covered roads, which will blur the approach lines. Or you could just come to a complete stop.
"I think this is a good thing," he says. "The reason they put these in was to generate revenue, and to reduce accidents, and it's done both. Some of these, you sit there and watch 'em, and the light's been red for like five seconds and somebody goes flying through it. You guys are frickin' idiots, man. I've seen some good accidents."
Me, I'm not worried. Hanna happens to be my cousin, and if we catch it in time, he could take care of me. We were pallbearers at our Uncle Tommy's funeral, and when you're part of the Irish mafia like that, asking him to get rid of a moving violation would be like me calling him up to see how he did at Texas Hold-'em at Grumpy's the night before.
You, on the other hand, you, like a lot of people, you might want to get a lawyer and go to court. Or not. Because the last thing the cops will do before you go before the judge is to take you out in the hall and show you the video that Matt Hanna has taken of you and your car speeding through an intersection, and say, "Are you sure you want to fight this?"
Jim Walsh can be reached at 612.372.3775 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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