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Automatic Number Plate Recognition and its uses

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So what is automatic number-plate recognition (or ANPR)?

So basically, it does what it says on the tin, it automatically recognises a vehicle's number plate. Character recognition technology and commonly, infrared lighting (to allow for clear day and night images) is now used by government agencies and law enforcement in countries all over the world.

What is ANPR used for?

ANPR is used for a variety of reasons. From bus lanes to bridges. For example, on the Mersey Gateway Bridge (opened in 2017) in the North West of England, there are no physical toll booths. Instead, the traditional toll booths have been replaced by an automatic number plate recognition system. The toll has to be paid online or via telephone before midnight the next day after crossing the bridge or a fine is issued to the owner of the vehicle. It was claimed this would be more beneficial to motorists as the traffic will flow more freely, therefore, decrease journey times. With one million penalty charges issued within the first 15 months of opening on this bridge alone, you can see why there has been some controversy over this particular use of ANPR cameras with several people accusing operators of greed via deception. They claim signage isn’t always clear and the argument of reading signs when you should be keeping your eyes on the road is dangerous.

The introduction of automatic number plate recognition cameras has been an effective development to the police. It has given them the tools to easily identify stolen vehicles and highlight ones linked with suspected major and organised crime including terrorism. “As a vehicle passes an ANPR camera, its registration number is read and instantly checked against database records of vehicles of interest.” states the website. These databases include the Police National Computer and the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA). “At present around 11000 ANPR cameras nationally, submit around 50 million ANPR ‘read’ records to national ANPR systems daily”. [sic]

In addition to drawing the attention of the police to a person/people or groups of interest; ANPR also helps the police identify instantaneously if a vehicle has been registered, taxed, insured and whether it holds a valid MOT. This allows the police to efficiently recognise vehicles (and their possible owners) of interest. Did you know, police forces using ANPR cameras can pick up registration plates from both traffic directions as well as multiple lanes? They don’t just capture the vehicle directly in front of them.

Automatic Number Plate Recognition and Speed Cameras

In 1991, the most recognised speed camera, the Gatso, was first introduced on the UK roads. The first speed camera captured images of the speeding vehicles on a roll of film, limiting them to take only 400 photos. These had to be processed, the vehicle and number plate details noted down and the owner’s details retrieved from the DVLA. Understandably, this wasn’t the most practical of ways as the film often ran out and needed an operative to change it. In 2007, the Gatso cameras evolved to a digital format. That meant they could run 24/7 with a direct link without the need for the film to be changed. The Gatso is a rear-facing camera, this means it captures the rear of the vehicle. This was done to prevent dazzling drivers when they flashed. The flash being necessary to take a clear and legible photograph to accurately record the vehicle type, colour, make and registration plate. The cameras are also rear facing to ensure every number plate can be captured i.e. a Motorcycle has only 1 rear plate. These types of cameras are usually found on main roads.

More and more HADECS 3 (Highways Agency Digital Enforcement Camera System 3) cameras have been popping up in the UK as part of the smart motorway rollout. Controversy has also surrounded these cameras being used on these new smart motorways as the speeds on a smart motorway can vary often. According to Highways England the reason for this is to “help steady the flow of traffic…”. They explain: “Variable speed limits can be set at busy times, in conjunction with a red X signal, or to manage a hazard or incident. They can also be automatically triggered by sensors in the road that monitor traffic flow”. By the look of it, the UK Government is going to continue to roll these cameras out and have started to use them in different ways. A press release from the Government on 29th January 2020 stated that these number plate recognition cameras “....monitor vehicles that ignore the red x to indicate a closed lane. Police are now able to use cameras as part of the enforcement of red X”. These variable speed limits combined with the HADECS 3 camera have caught a lot of unsuspecting motorists off guard and landed them with penalty points and a fine. Even with no variable speeds in place, these cameras can still catch you if you go above 70mph. These multi purpose cameras are here to stay.

SPECS (average speed) cameras seem to have been popping up more and more. First introduced in 1999, these cameras vary from the others as they can measure a vehicle's speed over a long distance but again, they use Automatic Number Plate Recognition. They work by calculating the time it has taken to get from camera to camera. This type of camera is usually found where speeding motorists have been flagged up as a concern. Usually they are found on motorway roadworks and dual carriageways.

How can I prevent my number plate from being recognised from the Automatic Number Plate Recognition cameras?

There is no way of disguising your number plate. All registration plates have to conform to the same set of standards, if not, they aren’t road legal. Ensuring your number plates are in good condition and free from obstruction and clearly legible at all times is important. The police can pull you over for dirty and misspaced number plates which may make them harder to read for the ANPR cameras (but not impossible!). Are your number plates in poor condition or not road legal? Don’t leave yourself open to receiving a fixed penalty notice. Order quality replacement number plates from that conform to all DVLA guidelines. It isn’t worth the risk

Automatic number plate recognition and your data?

With 11,000 cameras taking 50 million reads in a single day; understandably many people in the UK are concerned our every move is being watched. So what happens to our data if our registration plate wasn’t something of interest to the police is it destroyed? The simple answer is no, according to “ANPR data from each police force is stored together with similar data from other forces for a period of one year.” They follow with: “A record for all vehicles passing by a camera is stored, including those for vehicles that are not known to be of interest at the time of the read that may in appropriate circumstances be accessed for investigative purposes.”

With all this developing and evolving prying technology, is it any wonder people feel like we’re living in the novel 1984?

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