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Meet the ‘SafetyStick,’ Somerville’s new robotic approach to doling out parking tickets

Two solar-powered cameras on poles have caught hundreds of cases of bad driver behavior. Now they’re ready to hand out fines to scofflaws.

The parking department in Somerville has installed camera-mounted SafetySticks to catch people parking illegally in the bus lane and crosswalk at Elm and Chester streets in Davis Square. When the sticks become live, parking tickets will be mailed to drivers.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

SOMERVILLE — Over and over, every single day, drivers in Davis Square pull up to the corner of Elm and Chester streets and park illegally.

On one side of the road, motorists will leave their cars in the bus lane, or in front of a fire hydrant. On the other, they idle in front of a crosswalk.

Many seem to be making the same calculation: Since they’re only running into a store quickly, or grabbing a bite to eat on the go, they’ll get back before a parking enforcement officer has time to spot them and write a ticket.

For years, they’ve been right.

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Not anymore.

Last month, Somerville City Council members signed off on a plan to activate camera-equipped devices that can catch scofflaws in the act at both of the notoriously misused street spaces, and then send them tickets in the mail.

The gray, cylindrical devices, called SafetySticks, are part of a program set to launch before the end of the year that officials hope will be so efficient at issuing fines, it’ll make drivers think twice before leaving their cars where they don’t belong.

Illegal parking is rampant in Somerville, where curbside spots are often at a premium. That poses dangers for the high volume of pedestrians, cyclists, and public transit users traveling in all directions.

“There are always these quick stops people do,” said Suzanne Rinfret, the city’s director of traffic and parking. “They might run in for five minutes, but five minutes is five minutes too long when a bus can’t pull up to a curb or a biker is coming down a bike lane, or a person can’t be seen in a crosswalk.”

Human parking attendants can’t keep up with enforcement, she said. They’d have to be standing at the curb at all hours.

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So last spring, Rinfret decided to try a new approach: She agreed to let Austin-based company Municipal Parking Services install three of its solar-powered SafetySticks at the bustling location — two at the bus stop, and one at the crosswalk.

The results were staggering. In just 67 days, the sticks, which sit waist-high and contain little cameras capable of keeping an eye on a small area, counted 469 violations, or about seven per day.

Some drivers parked in the same illegal spot more than once. In one instance, a car blocked the bus stop for over 30 minutes.

“That’s just ridiculous,” Rinfret said. “It’s wrong. It’s dangerous.”

A person left her car in this bus lane in Davis Square where Somerville has installed camera-mounted SafetySticks to catch people parking illegally.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

During the pilot, the city didn’t use the data the SafetySticks collected to issue tickets. But when they become fully operational, the sticks will be able to take a photo of each car’s license plate, then send it to the parking department, along with a record of how long the car stayed there. Signs will be installed that warn about the cameras, which are also expected to be a deterrent.

Then a human parking official will confirm the violation, and if the driver lingered for longer than a three-minute grace period, a ticket will be sent.

This approach to enforcing parking rules is catching on. Since the Somerville pilot, traffic-clogged cities like Lynn and Everett have started using SafetySticks. The company said it has also pitched them to Boston.

As part of the arrangement, Municipal Parking Services takes a cut of the fines collected from every ticket its machines enable. But a company spokesperson said the goal isn’t to ticket as much as possible — it’s to be a city’s best shot at getting drivers to change their ways.

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“We’ve proven that we can deter and change behavior,” said Rob Matthews, the company’s vice president of sales and business development. “In Bridgeport [Conn.], when we first put these sticks in, we saw 11 violations a day in one space. Four years later, we only see one every other day.”

The company faced an inquisitive and potentially skeptical audience in Somerville, a city known for scrutinizing the use of surveillance and facial recognition technology.

But Matthews insisted the cameras won’t collect personal information or take photos of people’s faces.

“If somebody gets down on their hands and knees and they put their face right where the license plate is, we’re going to get it,” he said. “But that’s not our intent.”

In October, the City Council signed off on the plan. The approval included changing a law to allow tickets to be sent by mail. The parking department plans to begin ticketing using the sticks by the end of the year.

Some officials have said they’d like to go even further. City Councilor Willie Burnley Jr., has advocated for mailing out tickets based on photos submitted by people who spot errant drivers in places like bike lanes.

Residents often try to report illegally parked cars, including on the municipal services site 311, Burnley Jr. said, but by the time parking enforcement shows up, the car is long gone.

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“When someone sees something and says something, something should actually happen,” he said.

But Rinfret said that’s unlikely. Among other concerns, she worries that people might abuse the system, for example by making false accusations with fake photos.

Compared with humans, SafetySticks are much more reliable.

Rinfret said Somerville residents shouldn’t expect to see the technology on every corner right away. But long term, camera enforcement in other hot spots could send the message that drivers can be held accountable for where they leave their cars — even when they think no one is looking.

Other solutions are also on the table. Rinfret said this year, the city began allowing cars to park for five minutes in loading zones, and is also installing new signs that say they can do so.

High-tech or low-tech, she said, officials are willing to do whatever it takes to get people to leave bus stops and crosswalks alone.

“We don’t just want to slap tickets on people,” Rinfret said. “We want to educate.”

The parking department in Somerville has installed camera-mounted Safety Sticks to catch people parking illegally in the bus lane and crosswalk, at Elm and Chester streets. When the sticks become live, parking tickets will be mailed to drivers.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff



Spencer Buell can be reached at spencer.buell@globe.com. Follow him @SpencerBuell.