It hasn’t been that long since motorists and car owners in the U.K haven’t had to display the old fashioned car tax discs in their window. Of course, it must have been quite cumbersome (not to mention expensive) for DVLA to send paper reminders and thereafter paper tax discs up to twice a year for every car legally on the road in the U.K. But, it did at least allow Police Officers, and others, to quickly see whether a car was legally taxed or not by the roadside.
The reason tax discs are no more, or partly, is because technology became advanced enough to allow officers with a simply camera in their cars capable to ‘read’ number plates from up to a quarter of a mile away and then instantly cross reference the collected number plate data with information held on DVLA and insurer databases. These cameras can scan hundreds of cars per hour and check to see whether that should be legally on the road (i.e. are MOT’d, insured, and taxed), in addition to identify if there are any ‘markers’ on either the vehicle or the driver which may warrant further police scrutiny.
The technology behind all of this is called Automatic Number Plate Recognition, or ‘ANPR’. It’s not just cops sitting in laybys that use this either. Most large towns and cities have static ANPR cameras dotted around entry and exit points (often seen hanging from bridges or on lamp posts).
And ANPR is clever enough to not simply be a ‘one time’ check. The sheer processing power of computers nowadays, means the Police network are able to use the ANPR cameras to see if a vehicle has been in a particular are at a particular time. This has therefore proven to be an excellent tool for tracking the movement of criminals. Of course, criminals have got cleverer too, but there’s little doubt that ANPR is making life more difficult to criminals on the move.
But if we turn back to Police sitting with these cameras in their cars or vans, we can appreciate that the technology has allowed a lot of otherwise very routine ‘detective work’ to be fully automated. But, it’s not fool proof. Reports have been heard whereby ANPR cameras are identifying plates which are legally being used on cars which are taxed and insured, to incorrectly highlight misdemeanours. It would appear that most of these false reports are as a result of human error further upstream from insurance companies or DVLA, meaning a car with the incorrect information registered could become a target for the Police.
ANPR therefore has proven that technology does help keep us safer, and does say a lot of processing time by the Police, but all the time there is any element of human intervention or reliance, they will never be entirely infallible.