The natural highway speed

This has happened to many of us. Nice open road. Clean sight lines. Escape from the drudgery of stop-go nose to tail driving. With so many new roads, paved smooth in asphaltic concrete, international road signs and markings and our new quiet, thrifty and powerful cars, we need not be speed demons to enjoy a sedate 120 or 130km/h cruise, the default, natural gait “highway speed” feel of almost all cars and highway engineering designs today. With sparse traffic, relaxed in cool climes, ambient music or lively conversation, our driving tendency is to try to fill in the empty gaps while keeping good distance from other touring drivers, enjoying the scenery flow by. And then at the terminal toll plaza, reality check. You are waved to halt by deputized traffic officers, and then cited for breaking the national speed limit. Bummer!

Locked on speed limits

No argument here, speed limits are for our safety - but as to saving lives- I am a skeptic because speed limits also induce sleep and drivers asleep behind the wheel are a danger to themselves and others. Still exceeding the speed limit is breaking the law - no ifs, no buts. We can have all the reasons - arresting officers call them excuses - but we have no excuse to neglect that reading on the speedometer. In fact, up to date European cars even have a feature that read road sign speed limits, flash them on the TFT screen or heads-up display and even advise you to engage the lock of the car's speed limiter on cruise control so that any further pressure on the gas pedal produces no increase in speed.

Gone viral

Recently, a local 11 minute smart phone video about a 7 min. night drive on the SLEx from Caltex Mamplasan, posted on Facebook went viral, in 4 days hitting 400,000 plus by latest count. What makes it special is not because it features a current Volvo's speedometer steady at a cruise control 100km/h but its driver was ticketed at Calamba SLEx toll plaza for doing 131km/h as per the MATES LIDAR speed trap lurking at ABI Greenfield.

Smart phone, silent testimony

This was not a first for Mr. Dennis. Within the past month members of his family and his other family cars were also nailed for speeding by the MATES LIDAR speed monitoring team. In all cases, the drivers claim was that they were well within the posted limit. Which is why one night, Mr. Dennis' spouse came along and used her smart phone to video the whole trip, focused on the Volvo's speedo's 100km/h all the way and the ensuing actions of the MATES LTO deputized officers at the Calamba toll plaza.

Be reasonable

But then there is such a thing as reasonable speed limits. It would be silly to apply a 100km/h speed limit on a 5 lane arrow straight highway through the Sahara desert. Just as it would be downright dangerous to apply a 20km/h speed limit through an informal settlers shanty town with children playing on the crooked narrow path that serves as a street.

Exit density

Take the southern most portion of the SLEx. Though it may be 4x4 and 3x3 carriageway, the 2.0km gap between exits means high traffic density, which in turn mean a lot of lane changing, slowing down and accelerating of merging traffic on the two outermost lanes. Hence the need for a cautious speed limit. But at night, when there is no office and industrial park traffic that access SLEx from these junctions, there is no danger to driving a bit faster, considering that the road illumination is at high urban levels and the median light barriers prevent dangerous oncoming headlamp glare.

Sleeping at 100

As our national expressway system grows by leaps and bounds, motorists are now frequently faced with this new hazard; the danger of falling asleep behind the wheel as the 100km/h speed limit lulls one into drowsiness and boredom. Pace, the solution to boredom is entertainment and entertainment is only entertaining if it is variable. Hence, the need for driver enhancement “distractions” and variance in speed limits as a form of exercise for mind and sight.

Good distractions

In some Autoroutes in France and Expressways in China, this boredom is relieved by zones that teach you to simulate maintaining safe 3 to 10 car following gaps at speed by way of road markings and brief printed sequential instructions on median traffic signs. Other forms of distractions or entertainment are speed check exercises in keeping your speed steady at some zones. In these sections a speed gun is pointed at incoming cars and their actual speeds are displayed on large LED panels similar to what Fort Bonifacio used a few years ago. Sometimes these speed check zones are a prelude/warning for an upcoming LIDAR speed trap. You have been warned.

The best: variable speed limits

Variable speed limits are actually the best. They react to traffic density, weather, time of day and visibility. As early as 2006, NLEx already had plans to install gantry LED signs that post a speed limit, ranging from 60 to 120 per lane, depending on the 4 aforementioned variables. Long stretches of empty expressway like what TPLEx and SCTEx has, are ripe for strict steady speed limited zones followed by a few kilometers of high speed bursts to keep drivers awake. Some stretches of Austrian and Swiss Autobahnen are built around this.

Cong. Mark Cojuangco's speed limit bill

Needless to say, 100km/h is a tad slow and indeed sleep inducing for the long stretches of expressway. This is the motive behind Cong. Mark Cojuangco's proposal to raise our speed limit to 120 or 130, in keeping with the rest of the world.

Speed monitoring by cable

But regardless if 120 or 130 is driving man's natural steady highway speed, local laws still insist on 100. And this is what LTO deputized law enforcers of private tollway concessions enforce. It wasn't long ago in the late 90s, when PNCC still held sway on the 2 major expressways. Speed limit enforcement was by a black cable strewn crosswise on the road. This cable was connected to the speed reading equipment not far away. Don't laugh but the German Autobahn Polizei still use these speed check cables with huge grey apparatus carried on big Polizei Mercedes Sprinters.

Layers of Skwyay posse

Skyway used to apply this speed limit enforcement method and since local laws require that all traffic violations are served on the driver immediately, license confiscation has to be done post haste. Thus the Skyway posse had its hands full. There was a team to monitor the equipment, another team to flag down the offending driver. Then there were several layers of teams further down the road in case the offending driver refused to heed the call of team one, then team two, and so on.

Enter the LIDAR

The introduction of LIDAR [laser radar] speed cameras on the NLEx in 2006 upped the ante. No longer was there a need to lay an easily spotted cable as the LIDAR camera produced photographic evidence of the car, plate no. and the posted GPS corrected speed. Arrests were then made at the toll plaza exit.

Prop it, don't sweep it

Because LIDAR speed guns were in wide use in the USA, NLEx's TMC management was well aware of its foibles that the self serving owners manual nor the dealer training don't mention. Though designed to be hand held, in practice, even burly American state troopers prefer to use the speed guns mounted on a tripod or at least propped on the roof or fender of their patrol car. In litigation conscious USA, troopers were alert to avoid lawsuits. This precaution seeks to avoid two sources of reading error; 1. camera shake - blurred image 2. sweep effect - the temptation to “pan” the speed gun at a faster pace than the target vehicle - both resulting in an faster/higher speed reading. After initial trials using hand held mode propped out of a window ledge of a Hi-Lux on the Tabang flyover, which was already pretty consistent, NLEx opted to play safe and adapt the tripod mount, housed inside an Innova or Crosswind. To compensate for operator error, the NLEx's LTO deputized operators allowed an upper limit of 120km/h for private cars.

Narrower range

The sweep effect is particularly tricky as LIDAR's scope widens as the target is farther. This means that at more than 1,000 feet, LIDAR focus may target 2 vehicles side by side on a multi-lane freeway. New Jersey courts are aware of this so they do not accept LIDAR readings taken beyond 1,000 feet as evidence. To be safe, NLEx LIDAR teams narrow their speed gun range to 50 - 150 meters instead of the maximum 300.

How LIDAR works - and fails

LIDAR works by aiming a Point A and Point B that a vehicle passes, measures the time elapsed and approximates the speed all within a third of a second. This is where it gets tricky. If a speed gun is hand held and “swept” to follow through a moving target, the ideal is to aim for the plate no., then the LIDAR gets a point of reference A, then B, then shoots the picture and imbeds the computed speed. But it has happened, specially in nighttime conditions, that the first aim of the plate number at point A, transfers to the side view mirror in the middle of the car as point B. This artificially “accelerates” the movement of the car as reference point B, the mirror, is farther than the plate number, point A - resulting in an induced higher speed reading, and hence, an error.

Nocturnal enforcement

NLEx tried using the same speed guns at night but encountered safety risks in dark or low light areas. To get an image, the flash will be triggered by the LIDAR and surprise intense lighting can be construed as a danger to drivers. Moreover, even with a tripod, the usual point and shoot cameras of LIDAR guns do not have a shutter speed that is as fast as an SLR camera. In the video of Mr. Dennis, the flash of the speed gun is noticeable as the car drives past ABI Greenfield. Trivia: with a point and shoot camera's slow shutter speed, even in broad daylight, a Porsche, hurtling along at 300km/h won't have a captured image. And as far as our laws are concerned, no image, no violation. That's why computed speed as per entry and exit times on the toll card/ticket cannot constitute as a speeding violation. For night time speed limit enforcement, NLEx purchased a different kind of speed camera, reportedly to be video based.

Fail safe; calibration by DOST?

As for calibration, NLEx's first LIDAR cameras were fail safe; i.e., the moment you turn them on, they search for a GPS signal to calibrate their accuracy. If it fails, the camera won't work. The camera also won't shoot if ever the weather is hazy, raining hard or if there are stray light reflections from headlamps, electronic billboards or metal guard rails. At that time, NLEx never needed to justify calibration by claiming certification by the DOST as some speed gun operators imply. Besides, when did the DOST become a speed gun calibrator?

LTO coffers

As for Mr. Dennis, the LTO deputized MATES traffic enforcer had no choice but to ticket Mr. Dennis despite his wife's video evidence to the contrary. The MATES officer had to follow procedure and leave the validity of the video counter evidence to the traffic court. Moreover, contrary to popular opinion, speeding violation penalties accrue to LTO and MATES deputies are not given an incentive. In fact, speed monitoring is an expense to toll road operators.

Avoiding obsession

What NLEx guarded against in the beginning is the development of a Nazi like mentality so they sent their troopers to sensitivity training. It is quite flaterring to the ego to haul in a driver for speeding in a high value sports car like a Porsche. Sometimes catching speeders becomes a blood lust obsession, forgetting that the purpose of speed monitoring is not to increase the harvest of licenses but to keep the road safe and traffic flowing fast and smooth.

Take it to court

If Mr. Dennis takes this unjust speeding violation to traffic court, MATES will no doubt defend itself by utilizing speed gun manufacturers, dealer trainers qualifications and calibration logs, if any, as testimony. What is going for Mr. Dennis is his video evidence. Smart phone videos are also timed by GPS, which is as accurate as the DOST's atomic clock. The Mathematics will prove to a judge that he is innocent since at the distance of 9.51 kms as per DPWH mileposts, and the time elapsed yielded a speed of 81.5km/h. His Volvo's overeading speedometer by plus 8.0% is within the speedometer error tolerated by EU road authorities. This optimistic reading was further verified with Garmin GPS navigaton by intrepid Motoring Journalist and CNN Phils. Drive host, James Deakin when he drove Mr. Dennis's Volvo. No way at any point in Mr. Dennis's journey did he burst to beyond 100km/h. No way did his speed even approach the 131.0km/h claimed by the MATES speed LIDAR.

Arresting presence, transmitted evidence

Another bone of contention in this violation-arrest process is that the arresting officer's evidence of the violation depends on the speed gun operator who is far away. Neither has it been the practice of the speed gun operator to send the captured image to the arresting officer, either by internet or phone MMS, so that the officer has evidence to present the accused. NLEx tried to use MMS before but it didn't work.

Justice for all is the victory in itself

If Mr. Dennis pursues this wrongful arrest and violation case and wins, it will unravel the injustice done to all previous speeding violators caught by this MATES speed gun, seemingly being operated [hand held sweep, tripod less, poor light conditions, camera shake] improperly. True justice should require the court to order MATES to review all speeding violations and inform the LTO that all those violations were erroneous because of the limitations of the LIDAR camera and improper handling that the camera manufacturer failed to forewarn.

Cameras for dummies

If MATES is serious about night time speed limit enforcement, they should get dedicated equipment from TruVelo or GATSO of the so-called Specs kind. This is a 2 camera set up, which records the speed of a vehicle between 2 far apart points. China and Britain are extensive users of this. The problem though is that these cameras need a permanent mast for mounting, sometimes hidden by gantry signage. Mounted on a mast, motorists will surely memorize and publicize its location so that most will be alert. This is not a problem if MATES wants to ensure road safety and not obsess with filling the LTO's coffers. In fact, the presence of the camera mast, even warned in advance by signs like what the sporting British police do, will already make that stretch of highway the most law abiding stretch. The camera need not even be activated, and in time it can be replaced with dummies so that the live cameras can be deployed elsewhere.

Refunding the wrongfully accused

Considering that most speeding violations in this country hover around the 120-130 mark, it can be said that the majority of these violations were not because the drivers were speed maniacs. Speed maniacs are those who won't settle for anything less that double the posted speed limits. In fact, these offending drivers were probably just driving at their natural pace, driving man's natural highway speed. And how many of them were surprised and then even sheepishly embarrassed to be told that they were speeding? Filipino timidity won't make them act in protest and will just accept the speeding violation. How many of them will be skeptical enough to even webcam or phone video their journey as evidence for their law abiding? Timid or not, they still deserve justice if these drivers were ticketed by these LIDAR speed guns that were operated in error. If only Cong. Mark Cojuangco's speed limit bill didn't languish in Legislative limbo, MATES would be probably dealing with far less speeding violations, day or night. And if the court decides that LTO should refund the fines, when will it happen? The indication for that would be if LTO refunded the payment for the 2009 RFID registration stickers. For so long as Mr. Dennis and his family, and all those erroneously arrested, should have all their licenses wiped clean of speeding violations.