A motorist cruises past Medford's white photo speed van and a radar reader board parked recently on Garfield Street. 2/29/08 Denise Baratta

Man in the Van

One-fingered waves and nasty looks are some of the fringe benefits that come with Gary Bates' post-retirement career as operator of Medford Police Department's photo-enforcement vans.

Two days a week, Bates stakes out speeders at a pre-determined location. Depending on the van he's in that day, he either points a laser photo gun at drivers he suspects of speeding or sets up radar cones that communicate with cameras inside the van.

In both cases, photo proof of the speeding car and its driver is captured in a computer and sent to Redflex, a private company in Scottsdale, Ariz., that contracts with the city to generate hard copies.

After they're checked for clarity, photos of possible offenders are sent back to Medford police, who issue citations in the mail to the owner of the vehicle. The owner must then pay a fine or contest the ticket in court.

Redflex also operates the red-light cameras at major intersections in Medford.

If the driver's face or the car's license plate is not clearly identified in the photos, pictures will be discarded and a citation will not be issued.

The fine for driving 11 to 20 mph over the designated speed is $145. Above that, the fine is $242.

Photo-enforcement vans are set up at more than 180 spots throughout Medford every month. Bates arrives at Medford's Property Control vehicle compound at 7 a.m. to get his assignments. The equipment in the van is checked and tested for accuracy.

Once parked at his assigned location, Bates puts up a warning sign that must be placed more than 300 feet from the van. Bates programs the computer with the location number, the designated speed and the enforced speed (which is officially 11 mph over the limit). The equipment is tested again and operation begins.

Bates spends a maximum four hours at each location. His busiest days — where speeding is historically a problem — are spent on Highland Drive, Highway 62, North Central Avenue near Jackson Street and school zones, especially on Delta Waters Road. Photo-enforcement vans generate an average 283 violations per month, Bates says.

While on duty, Bates is used to colorful reactions.

"A lot of people like to express their displeasure with the van by honking and giving the van the one-fingered wave," he says. "In one car, the male driver also had his wife and two grade-school kids sitting in the back seat, all giving the van the one-fingered wave. I thought that was overdoing it just a little bit."

Bates says many speeders are photographed in states of distraction, from talking on cell phones (the biggest offender) to applying makeup and chowing down fast food, all while driving too fast.

"One guy was steering with his left hand while holding a piece of paper in that hand and talking on his cell phone — it looked like he was reading off the paper into his cell phone while speeding," says Bates. "You've got to wonder what these people think when they get these photos in the mail. And you never see them plead not guilty, so they have to get up in front of a judge and try and explain."

Telling people he's just met that he works in the photo-enforcement van usually leads to a barrage of questions and complaints about citations.

"I generally tell people that van operators are like umpires in baseball: All we do is call the balls and strikes," reasons Bates. "We don't make the rules."

That applies even when pointing the laser at on- or off-duty colleagues, friends and family.

"I have had to make phone calls or send e-mails giving friends and other police officers the 'really bad news,'" he says. "There have been a couple of times when it has made things a little tense for a while. Most of the time, they have all taken it pretty good."

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