Fact Check

Seatbelt Snap Trap

Prankster who thinks he's fooling a speed trap camera instead gets tickets for not wearing his seatbelt?

Published Aug. 8, 2009


Claim:   Prankster who thinks he's fooling a speed trap camera instead gets tickets for not wearing his seatbelt.


Example:   [Collected via e-mail, May 2009]

Traffic Cameras

A man was driving when a traffic camera flashed. He thought his picture was taken for exceeding the speed limit, even though he knew he was not speeding. Just to be sure, he went around the block and passed the same spot, driving even more slowly, but again the camera flashed. He thought this was quite funny, so he slowed down even further as he drove past the area, but the traffic camera flashed yet again. He tried a fourth time with the same result. The fifth time he was laughing when the camera flashed as he rolled past at a snail's pace.

Two weeks later, he got five traffic fine letters in the mail for driving without a seat belt.


Origins:   This rollicking tale about misplaced assumptions began circulating on the Internet in May 2009. While it can't be definitively disproved, for the following reasons it's likely better regarded as a legend rather than as an account of an actual incident.

Photo speed traps or "snap traps" (cameras linked to speed detection devices that automatically photograph vehicles exceeding the speed limit then mail tickets to the owners of those vehicles) react only to the speed of whatever passes before them; they don't analyze and react to anything else. They're not geared to detect whether a car's occupants are wearing seat belts; these cameras merely record visual images of the automobiles that the speed detection apparatus feeding into them has already determined are breaking the law.

Working out the rate of speed is relatively easy for these automated devices. It usually involves no more than a matter of two sets of sensors having been embedded into the road a short distance from one another; if the second array of sensors buried in the roadbed is triggered in too short a timespan after the first,

the machine "knows" the car passing in front of it is exceeding the speed limit, quickly works out the rate of travel, takes a photograph, and generates a ticket. It's purely a matter of math; no judgment or evaluation on the part of the machine is required.

The detection of who in a car is wearing a seat belt, however, would be quite a different matter. For a snap trap of this sort to work, it would have to quickly analyze a visual image of the car's occupants to note the absence of safety restraints. Given that seat belts come in various colors, as does the clothing people wear, definitively determining that seat belts are not correctly in place would likely be well beyond any current scanning device's capability. Second, drivers and passengers come in all shapes and sizes, which means the position of the belt would be different on one person to the next, further challenging any machine's capabilities. Third, vehicles come in various heights, so a camera correctly aimed to pick off a clear visual image of those riding in a Toyota Prius would be flummoxed by a Hummer.

A fellow did once get himself five speeding tickets in short order from an automated speed trap, but such result was due to an ill-controlled temper, not machine malfunction. In an incident that took place in Arizona in 2007, 21-year-old Brian Ward (a catcher formerly in the Atlanta Braves organization) was clocked by speed enforcement cameras five times between 24 February and 26 February of that year. Each time he was traveling at least 98 mph, and on one occasion he was going as fast as 122 mph. (Indeed, on 26 February he was clocked speeding three times in three minutes.) The young man had lost money at Casino Arizona and sought to work out his angst by flipping off the cameras along Loop 101 in Scottsdale.

Modern folklore encompasses other tales that involve speed traps, such as the yarn about pranksters stealing a license plate from a speed trap camera van, affixing it to their own vehicle, then repeatedly driving through the trap, thereby causing the apparatus to issue tickets to itself; the story of the driver who mailed a picture of money in payment of his photo radar-generated speeding ticket (the cops mailed back a picture of handcuffs); or the tale about the clever little boys who collect tips for warning motorists about an upcoming speed trap. And of course there are always tales of cheating spouses brought to light by the contents of the photo accompanying the ticket:

[Collected via e-mail, July 2009]

So I heard this story from my boss. A man receives a ticket in the mail because he had been photographed running a red light in an intersection that was equipped with a red light camera, however when he saw the copy of the photo it wasn't him! As the story unfolds it turns out that the man driving the car was his wife's lover! Thus a divorce ensued; the first "red light divorce."

Barbara "picture of (dis)contentment" Mikkelson

Last updated:   12 August 2009


    Ferraresi, Michael.   "Cameras Catch Driver Speeding 5 Times."

    The Arizona Republic.   2 March 2007.