Once upon a time, the open highways of America were one of our greatest symbols of liberty and freedom. Anyone could hop in a car and set off for a new adventure at any time and even our music encouraged us to "get our kicks on route 66". But today everything has changed. Now the highways of America are being steadily transformed into a high tech prison grid. All over the country, thousands upon thousands of surveillance cameras watch our highways and automated license plate readers are actually being used to track vehicle movements in some of our largest cities. Many state and local governments have come to view our highways as money machines and our control freak politicians have established a vast network of toll booths, red light cameras and speed traps to keep cash endlessly pouring in. If all of that wasn't enough, TSA "VIPR teams" are now hitting the interstates and conducting thousands of "unannounced security screenings" each year. Driving on the highways of America used to be a great joy, but now "Big Brother" is rapidly sucking all of the fun out of it. Eventually, it may get to the point where Americans simply dread having to go out on the highway.
The following are 10 signs that the highways of America are being transformed into a high tech prison grid....
#1 Surveillance Cameras
All over the United States, a vast network of surveillance cameras is carefully watching our highways. The following is an excerpt from a recent article in the Baltimore Sun about this phenomenon....
The room is large and well lit, and it buzzes with activity even though its occupants remain seated.#2 Automated License Plate Readers
The video screen at the front of the room is as wide as an IMAX, though not quite as tall. It consists of 64 smaller screens -- 16 columns of four apiece -- that monitor every inch of interstate between Great Wolf Lodge and the Virginia Beach Oceanfront. There is an emphasis on tunnels and bridges, and one corner screen is tuned in to a 24-hour weather report.
If you are driving on an highway in Hampton Roads, VDOT is watching you.
More than 250 cameras in the District and its suburbs scan license plates in real time, helping police pinpoint stolen cars and fleeing killers. But the program quietly has expanded beyond what anyone had imagined even a few years ago.A lot of police cruisers are being outfitted with this technology around the nation as well.
With virtually no public debate, police agencies have begun storing the information from the cameras, building databases that document the travels of millions of vehicles.
Nowhere is that more prevalent than in the District, which has more than one plate-reader per square mile, the highest concentration in the nation. Police in the Washington suburbs have dozens of them as well, and local agencies plan to add many more in coming months, creating a comprehensive dragnet that will include all the approaches into the District.
Registered vehicle owners who do not pay their toll within 80 days or more will be mailed a $40 civil penalty for each unpaid toll transaction in addition to a $5 reprocessing fee.#5 Oppressive Toll Roads
WSDOT confirmed some tolls plus penalty fees have added up to more than $1,000.
"¢California and Washington authorized high-occcupancy toll (HOT) lanes, where tolls rise or fall depending on traffic flow. Texas enacted laws authorizing private toll roads and allowing regional authorities to collect tolls. Indiana removed a provision requiring legislative approval for toll roads.Toll roads are one of my pet peeves. Any time I see a toll booth it immediately puts me in a bad mood.
"¢Some Maryland tolls will double this year as the state seeks money to rehabilitate aging roads, bridges and tunnels.
The use of tolls on interstate highways also is spreading:
"¢Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, just won approval from the Federal Highway Administration to add tolls on Interstate 95 in his state. The state estimates that tolls on the heavily traveled corridor could generate $250 million over the first five years for expanding, improving and maintaining the highway.
"¢New York and New Jersey recently announced that E-ZPass commuters will pay $1.50 more and cash customers $2 more to cross bridges and tunnels between the two states.
"¢Georgia just created toll lanes on Interstate 85 in suburban Atlanta.
The toll hikes are more than chump change: Cash tolls on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge jumped to $4 from $2.50, and to $12 from $8 on all the New York-New Jersey Hudson River crossings.
According to U.S. PIRG (Public Interest Research Group), nearly 700 U.S. cities and towns installed the cameras, which accounted for more than 90 percent of tickets issued for illegal right turns, or rolling stops.#7 Speed Traps
In one New Jersey town, PIRG found 2,500 tickets were issued at one intersection within the first two months of installing a camera.
"When I first started in this job 30 years ago, police work was never about revenue enhancement, but if you're a chief now, you have to look at whether your department produces revenues."Speed traps are becoming more common almost everywhere, but some areas of the country are worse than others.
After crunching the numbers, the NMA found that Nevada is the state most likely to issue you a traffic ticket, followed by Georgia and Alabama. In 2010 Florida took the top spot and Georgia and Nevada tied for second place.#8 Government Spying
The state where you're least likely to get ticketed is Wyoming, followed closely by Montana. These two ranked at the bottom in 2010 as well.
The 25-year-old resident of San Jose, California, says he found the first one about three weeks ago on his Volvo SUV while visiting his mother in Modesto, about 80 miles northeast of San Jose. After contacting Wired and allowing a photographer to snap pictures of the device, it was swapped out and replaced with a second tracking device. A witness also reported seeing a strange man looking beneath the vehicle of the young man's girlfriend while her car was parked at work, suggesting that a tracking device may have been retrieved from her car.#9 Extraction Devices
Then things got really weird when police showed up during a Wired interview with the man.
The young man, who asked to be identified only as Greg, is one among an increasing number of U.S. citizens who are finding themselves tracked with the high-tech devices.
The Justice Department has said that law enforcement agents employ GPS as a crime-fighting tool with "great frequency," and GPS retailers have told Wired that they've sold thousands of the devices to the feds.
The devices, sold by a company called Cellebrite, can download text messages, photos, video, and even GPS data from most brands of cell phones. The handheld machines have various interfaces to work with different models and can even bypass security passwords and access some information.#10 VIPR Teams
You're probably used to seeing TSA's signature blue uniforms at the airport, but now agents are hitting the interstates to fight terrorism with Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response (VIPR).TSA VIPR teams now conduct approximately 8,000 "unannounced security screenings" at subway stations, bus terminals, seaports and highway rest stops each year.
"Where is a terrorist more apt to be found? Not these days on an airplane more likely on the interstate," said Tennessee Department of Safety & Homeland Security Commissioner Bill Gibbons.
Tuesday Tennessee was first to deploy VIPR simultaneously at five weigh stations and two bus stations across the state.
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