Highway Robbery – Times Publications, February 2009


As the debate rages, the legislature is discussing a complete photo-radar ban. Do the cameras make our roads safer?

At around midnight, wielding a large pickax, Travis Munroe Townsend crossed into the restricted embankment of the Loop 101 freeway. The 26-year-old Glendale substitute teacher then advanced upon the stationary photo-enforcement camera and allegedly went into attack mode, striking it at least six times.

The loud bang got the attention of a nearby motorcycle cop who was parked underneath the 59th Avenue overpass. As the officer approached, Townsend turned and raised the ax over his head to strike again, but apparently thought twice and laid it on the ground. Townsend was taken into custody and charged with criminal damage, interference with a traffic-control device and criminal trespass. The camera, which was left with small puncture marks and dents, was back photographing speeders within 12 hours, but the sounds of the smashing pickax resonated across the Valley, reflecting a growing opposition to Arizona’s radical photo-radar program.

Since its launch in September, state highways have been peppered with nearly 100 photo-radar cameras—the most expansive automated traffic enforcement program in the country.

The question of course is whether those cameras are creating a safer environment for Valley drivers. Proponents say it’s making the streets safer while opponents contend it’s just another government tax, but what does the research say?

Safer Streets?

“There is not a shred of valid research that shows speed cameras have ever saved one single life,” says Greg Mauz, a volunteer advocate for the National Motorists Association, who has researched automated traffic enforcement for decades. “But there are numerous studies and research that prove the cameras cause more crashes, injuries and fatalities.”

Mauz’s analysis of data from red-light and speed cameras in Texas and elsewhere shows traffic accidents, especially rear-end collisions, increase up to 65 percent at photo-radar locations.

That’s because motorists often brake suddenly when they see a camera, or a sign indicating the presence of one, and then speed up again after driving past it. At night, the camera flashes can also be a distraction to drivers, increasing the danger.

The best-known study, the results of which backed up those claims, was performed in the United Kingdom, where speed and red-light cameras blanket the roadways. The UK Department for Transport funded a study that showed a 31-percent increase in injury accidents where cameras were used on freeways. According to the study’s findings, which were initially suppressed, personal injury accident rates are “significantly higher for the sites with speed cameras than the rate for sites without.” Moreover, excessive speed is only a factor in five percent of all crashes, according to a 2008 study by the United States Department of Transportation that was called the “most comprehensive examination of accident causation in 30 years.”

The safest speed for drivers is actually one set in the 85th percentile that free-flowing traffic is moving, Mauz says. Lowering the speed limits creates more speeding citations, and consequently more violations, but it also makes roads more dangerous, he says.

“It’s well established that most speed limits are underposted,” says Mauz. “Rounding down actually has a tendency to increase crashes because it increases the variance between vehicles. It doesn’t really slow down the faster drivers.”

On the other side, there have been studies that found marked reductions in the number of accidents when photo-radar cameras were present.

An Arizona State University study of Scottsdale’s Loop 101 camera program found single-vehicle crashes were reduced by 71 percent, and sideswiping crashes by nearly 58 percent, after the cameras were installed.

Rear-end collisions, however, increased by 33 percent. Camera proponents maintain that such collisions are far less severe than angle collisions. “By decreasing the following distance you increase the chance of accidents,” says D.T. Arneson, the Mesa computer repairman who started Camera Fraud, a local organization dedicated to ending photo radar. “Despite what DPS claims or other people claim, rear-end collisions can cause some of the most serious injuries and fatalities.”

Toll Road

Siphoning money from drivers is the real motive behind photo radar, camera opponents say.

“This is clearly a scheme for revenue generation,” says Arizona Senator Ron Gould. “It has nothing to do with safety.” Each camera generates $282,600 per month in citations, or a total of $340 million per year for the fully deployed system of 200 cameras statewide, according to estimates from the state and Redflex Traffic Systems, the Scottsdale-based company responsible for operating and maintaining the cameras.

Within the first 80 days of installment, the Department of Public Safety issued more than 74,000 citations, of which drivers have thus far paid 8,300, generating an approximate $1.5 million.

Redflex Traffic Systems receives up to $28.75 of every paid citation.

However, of the citations mailed, less than one-third of motorists actually pay the $165 fine, according to the Department of Public Safety.

“Photo radar tends to pick on just certain groups of people – those who follow the law,” says State Senator Russell Pearce. “You’ve narrowed it to an unfair treatment of citizens.”

As an example, citations are not sent to motorists who are driving company cars nor to drivers who have registered their vehicles to post-office boxes, Pearce says. The system also encourages drivers not to fight the tickets: points are not added to offenders’ licenses, and citations are not reported to insurance companies. Last year, when the photo-enforcement program was pushed into law by former Governor Janet Napolitano, she acknowledged it was designed in a way to generate maximum revenue for the state and help close the billion-dollar budget deficit.

At the time it was proposed, Napolitano predicted the program’s implementation would add up to $90 million to state coffers in the 2009 fiscal year. “It’s just complete nonsense. It’s all about money,” Arneson says. “It’s proven it’s not going to help with safety.”

Opposing Research

Contrary to opponents’ claims, Arizona DPS says the photo cameras greatly improve driver safety and save lives. According to the most recent statistics released by the agency, injury crashes were reduced by 17 percent and fatal collisions declined by 29 percent in the first 80 days of the photo-radar program.

That reduction in collisions is responsible for saving three lives per month, the research shows. “It’s changing driver behavior,” says Bart Graves, a spokesman for DPS. “If we can slow people down there’s less probability of collisions happening. And people are slowing down.”

Critics and even the prominent motorist advocacy group AAA Arizona, however, have publicly questioned the methodology used to arrive at those conclusions. Linda Gorman, AAA Arizona’s director of public affairs, says there were many factors that could have resulted in a drop in collisions.

For instance, there were six-percent fewer drivers on the road in Maricopa County, equating to 10,000 fewer drivers per day on some stretches of highway, according to the Arizona Department of Transportation. DPS also has made an effort to put more patrol officers on highways, all of which led experts to predict fatalities would drop by nearly 30 percent.

Gorman added that AAA supports photo radar, but only in locations where it maximizes safety. “We recognize photo enforcement has its place, but our concern with the current program is we view it as flawed,” Gorman says. “Right now we’re experiencing an unprecedented proliferation of photo enforcement on our freeways, and it seems that it’s turned into one that’s more focused on the revenue.”

Graves admits the statistics released by DPS aren’t scientific or definitive, but says it’s a clear indication that the cameras are contributing to safer driving conditions. “What’s lost in all the data about photo enforcement is that if you drive around the freeway system in metro Phoenix, people are slowing down,” he says.

Public Sentiment

On a recent afternoon Phoenix resident Edward Ostling, 30, stood on the steps of the state capitol, waving anti-photo-enforcement signs. “These things are unconstitutional,” he says, standing among a crowd of dozens of other protestors. “States need to provide due process. The state can’t issue a fine and expect payment with you not having the ability to defend yourself.”

Opposition to photo speed enforcement has become increasingly more vocal, even among Valley residents who have never received a photo-radar ticket, such as Ostling. In addition to protests and public gatherings, camera opponents have, in some instances, resorted to sabotage – blocking the window in front of the camera with yellow Post-it notes, silly string and gift-wrapped boxes.

“I just think it’s so intrusive. To me it coincides with the Big Brother thing,” says camera opponent Matt Fercho, 32, of Tolleson. “They need to come down.” Despite the rampant criticism, proponents say the majority of Arizonans support the system.

“There is a vocal minority who is against it,” says Shoba Vaitheeswaran, director of communications for Redflex. “Nobody really likes to get a ticket. It doesn’t matter if it’s from an officer or if it’s automated.”

More than two out of three citizens support the use of photo radar on both the city streets and freeways, according to a March 2008 survey of Phoenix residents conducted by WestGroup Research, an Arizona-based research firm.

In addition, the survey showed 72 percent of residents indicated the use of photo cameras has improved safety on Arizona’s roads. The goal of the technology is to modify driver behavior,” says Vaitheeswaran. “We wouldn’t be in business if this technology really didn’t reduce collisions.”

Taking Action

If photo-radar opponents have their way, the cameras won’t be policing speeders for long.

In January, state lawmakers proposed legislation to ban both state and local cameras on highways. The bill recently passed the House committee, and if the prohibition is passed by the full state House and Senate, it could take effect immediately.

Opponents are also keeping a close eye on newly-appointed Governor Jan Brewer, who has yet to take a position on photo-radar enforcement but has said she has been receiving lots of complaints about the program from constituents.

Two petitions for initiative measures have been filed by two separate citizen groups for the 2010 ballot. One would ban photo-enforcement citations except for violations exceeding 20 mph over the posted limit; the other would ban photo-enforcement citations entirely.

Both groups need to collect at least 153,365 valid signatures by July 1, 2010, to place the measure before voters.

“If there is a majority that does support photo radar, they definitely aren’t saying anything about it,” says Rex Platt, one of the initiative organizers. “It would save both groups handling initiatives and all the voters a lot of time and energy if legislators would actually listen to their constituents and ban photo radar.”

Wisconsin, West Virginia and several other states and cities have already banned photo enforcement completely.

Newly-elected Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu, who was the first law-enforcement officer in the state to publicly condemn photo radar, says the public’s sentiment is clear.

“When the government becomes too overbearing, this is what happens,” says Babeu. “The people rise up and there’s an initiative.” Babeu ran for sheriff on the platform of eliminating photo radar in Pinal County to become the county’s first-ever Republican sheriff. Shortly after the election, Babeu effectively abolished photo-radar cameras in Pinal County.

“We cannot take a police officer or a deputy and go to this automation, almost like an Orwellian state,” he says. “It’s wrong. It’s the wrong direction for Arizona to go.”

Arizona Department of Public Safety: http://photoenforcement.azdps.gov/
Camera Fraud Organization: www.camerafraud.com
Limit Photo Radar AZ Initiative: www.limitphotoradaraz.org
National Motorists Association: http://www.motorists.org/mauz.php