Big Brother not at Hutton Ranch Plaza

By Beacon Staff

The Flathead is growing, but it’s not quite London or Paris yet. Still, suspicions are mounting among some valley residents that what appear to be cameras peering down from traffic signals at major intersections represent a new intrusion into privacy. It’s an atmosphere some find practically European.

After receiving an e-mail questioning the nature of the new cameras sprouting up – particularly around the new box stores in north Kalispell – the Beacon sent an intrepid reporter to the intersection of Hutton Ranch Road, Reserve Loop and U.S. 93 to conduct a highly unscientific study asking drivers if they were aware of the devices pointed down at their vehicles, or bothered by them.

“It’s just ludicrous,” said a man in a white Toyota Camry waiting at the red light. “To the extent that you’re under a camera anymore it’s gotten ridiculous.”

“You can’t walk down the street without getting videotaped,” he added, before driving away. (Due to the short time between green lights, the Beacon was not able to get names from drivers interviewed without dangerously delaying traffic).

While listening to radio host Alex Jones on KGEZ “The Edge” – a man in a white Ford Explorer said he was against the traffic monitors. When asked why, he replied succinctly: “Freedom.”

But the vast majority of drivers interviewed said they appreciated what they thought were cameras, believing the devices acted as a deterrent against reckless driving and could record accidents.

Those concerned about the prying eyes of the government can rest easy. Stephen Herzog, Kalispell area maintenance engineer for the state Department of Transportation, said the lenses peering down at the Hutton Ranch-Costco intersection are not cameras at all, but devices called loop detectors.

Herzog explained loop detectors simply send out a magnetic field that can detect when a car or motorcycle has pulled up to an intersection, allowing a timer in the traffic signal to kick in and cause a red light at the intersection’s other road. It’s standard technology used across the state that allows traffic to flow more smoothly.

At new intersections, the detectors are set in the road, Herzog said, but at established intersections, it’s better to mount loop detectors on traffic signals than to tear up the pavement. Similar loop detectors exist at intersections along East Idaho Street.

Kalispell Mayor Pam Kennedy emphasized the loop detectors can’t identify anything: not faces, not vehicles, not what you bought at Target.

“They’ve been around for a long time,” she said of the loop detectors. “It’s not Big Brother.”

While Herzog said he was aware of some areas of Europe and the United States where cameras monitored intersections, snapping photos of violators and mailing them a fine, there is currently no desire to use surveillance technology for traffic enforcement in Montana.

“There is a real strong aversion to that type of application from everything I’ve gathered,” he said.

But there is one place where cameras do watch the public: the Flathead County landfill, where three cameras watch for anyone driving in with an unsecured load that’s dropping trash on the way in. The penalty? $200.

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