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Political winds shifted against photo radar

Michael Downing, in charge of mobile units for American Traffic Systems, demonstrates where the operator sits when the vehicle is parked. ATS has installed extra security cameras and Redflex doesn't man some mobile units following the shooting death of one operator on a Phoenix freeway.

Michael Downing, in charge of mobile units for American Traffic Systems, demonstrates where the operator sits when the vehicle is parked. ATS has installed extra security cameras and Redflex doesn

The lesson learned from Arizona’s brief flirtation with photo radar is that it’s better to be popular than effective.

The freeway photo-enforcement cameras have generated fierce resistance from a group of vocal critics. And even more importantly, those who make and carry out policy – Gov. Jan Brewer, the Legislature and the Department of Public Safety – opted to let the state’s contract with the company that operates the cameras expire, despite substantial evidence showing that they save lives.

RELATED: Short and tumultuous history of freeway photo enforcement

Though detractors claim the speed enforcement cameras have actually increased rear-end collisions, most studies show that accidents have dropped significantly. On its website, DPS says “the results were dramatic” when the cameras were introduced, citing reduced accidents, injuries and average freeway speeds.

Indeed, the state’s decision to take down the cameras on July 15 is backed by evidence that it was a political one, not one based on safety.

In a letter to Redflex Traffic Systems, which operates the photo enforcement program on the state’s highways and freeways, DPS told the company that its decision to not renew its contract with Redflex was based not on the company’s performance, but on “a change in the agency’s focus.”

The photo enforcement program was doomed by Arizona’s shifting political winds, said Jay Heiler, Redflex lobbyist. Heiler should know. He has unique insight on the situation as not only advocating for photo radar but also as being a close ally of Brewer and a key adviser to her gubernatorial campaign.

“You have to pay attention on this issue and follow the tides a little bit,” Heiler said of the way political support for photo enforcement has ebbed since the program was implemented.

That change occurred when then-Gov. Janet Napolitano, who implemented and advocated for the program, resigned to head up the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and was replaced by Jan Brewer. Brewer did not share her predecessor’s enthusiasm for photo enforcement, telling reporters, “I hate it,” just weeks after taking office.

When Brewer replaced Napolitano’s DPS director, the agency’s attitudes toward photo enforcement turned as well. DPS Director Robert Halliday, whose predecessor, Roger Vanderpool, promoted the cameras as an effective public safety tool, has said he supports photo enforcement, but questioned the way it was implemented, echoing some of Brewer’s criticism.

“When I see a technology that diminishes public trust and is revenue-generated and based, I have a really hard time with that, being a law enforcement professional,” Halliday said in a May 10 speech. “If the state decides that we’re going to have photo enforcement, I’m in. I’ll use anything that I possibly can to make the highways safer.”

Halliday said he would support a future photo enforcement program but wants to have a say in how it is implemented. He would not talk with the Arizona Capitol Times about what changes he would make to the program, or what changes in the DPS focus led the department to not renew its contract with Redflex.

SAFETY MESSAGE FAILED

Photo enforcement generated opposition primarily due to factors unrelated to its effectiveness, Heiler said.

He said some critics oppose it, due to a perception that the state is more interested in raising money than improving safety, which he said was reinforced by Napolitano’s boasts that the program would raise $90 million in its first year. The revenue from photo radar fell far short of those projections, taking in just $37 million in its first year.

Many people believe the cameras are used unfairly, such as in areas where speed limits suddenly change, or where drivers must weave or shift lanes, said Simon Washington, a former Arizona State University engineering professor.

“I don’t think they should ever be put in places that would surprise a driver. And I think some were put in places like that,” said Washington, who now teaches at the University of California-Berkeley. “I think drivers mistakenly interpret that as a situation where someone’s trying to trick them and take their money.”

Washington conducted a 2007 study that showed photo enforcement cameras caused a 54 percent reduction in accidents on a section of the Loop 101 freeway. He said the DPS program should have been implemented in way the assured the public that it was their safety, and not their money, that the state was interested in. That, Washington said, would eliminate a lot of the public’s opposition.

“It’s not a statistical decision. It’s a politically motivated decision. The politics is motivated by the perception of the programs and how they’re run,” Washington said.

Heiler said Napolitano tied the photo enforcement program closely to revenue generation, which diminished the public’s trust in the program, and didn’t respond to “legitimate frustration” the public had with some aspects of photo radar, such as the placement of cameras in areas with shifting speed limits.

CRITICS SEIZED ON REAR-END COLLISONS

Washington’s study, however, contained some of the ammunition that critics fire at photo enforcement. His study gauged photo radar’s effectiveness using three separate methodologies, one of which actually showed an increase in rear-end collisions in areas where the cameras were used. The three studies varied in their assessment of rear-end collisions, showing anywhere from a 14 percent increase to a 23 percent decrease.

The finding that showed the increase in rear-end collisions was based on flawed methodology, Washington said. The 54 percent decrease in overall accidents he cited was from a revised version of the study.

More recent statistics are harder to come by. The DPS website, which credits photo radar for showing “dramatic” results, still uses numbers from the 2007 study. And when DPS originally released those numbers to bolster support for photo enforcement, it omitted the portion that found an increase in rear-end collisions.

The claim that speed enforcement cameras increase, rather than reduce, accidents is common among critics.

Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu, who made headlines after his 2008 election by taking down all photo enforcement cameras on county roads, said accidents in his county increased by 17 percent in areas where the cameras were used, though he did not provide more detailed statistics.

Babeu said drivers slow down for the cameras but simply speed back up once they pass them, and said photo enforcement cameras shift live officers away from traffic enforcement but aren’t nearly as effective.

“All the estimates, all the promises, were false,” Babeu said.

Babeu said the public’s perception of law enforcement is also damaged because people have realized that they can usually get away without paying the tickets. According to DPS statistics, only about 38 percent of the tickets are paid. Tickets are sent through the mail but drivers who don’t pay or show up in court must be served in person with the citation. Often, that never happens.

Many Arizona cities, such as Mesa, also use photo radar, both for speed enforcement and for red light running at intersections. These programs are separate from the statewide photo-enforcement system. Mesa Police Department spokesman Sgt. Ed Wessing said photo enforcement has helped reduce accidents in Mesa, though he said there are numerous other reasons for the decrease as well.

“It’s clearly not the sole reason why our … accidents are down,” Wessing said. “It’s one factor in our overall traffic operation.”

Jim Tuton, a spokesman for Scottsdale-based American Traffic Solutions, said photo enforcement at intersections has been shown to increase rear-end collisions because people who are unfamiliar with the cameras often have a tendency to suddenly slow down.

But Tuton, whose company operates 127 photo enforcement cameras in Arizona, said those numbers drop again once people get used to the cameras. Overall, he said, the cameras decrease other, more serious types of accidents.

“The opposition blows that up as a huge issue that crashes are up. But they aren’t up. Maybe momentarily for a period of time some people are going to slam on their brakes when the light turns red instead of running through the red light,” Tuton said.

POPULAR IN POLLS, NOT AMONG VOTERS

Advocates and opponents of photo radar disagree not only on its effectiveness but its popularity. Numerous polls have shown widespread public support for photo radar, but public votes have not always backed up those numbers.

Little polling has been done on photo enforcement in Arizona, though a March 2009 poll by the Virginia-based firm Public Opinion Strategies showed 61 percent of respondents supported photo radar on the state’s freeways and 67 percent supported their use on city streets. And a Behavior Research Center poll showed 72 percent support for photo radar, though the poll was taken in November 2007, nearly a year before the DPS program was implemented.

Polling has at times conflicted with elections on photo radar, however. In April 2009, a ballot measure to ban photo radar in Sulphur, La., won with the support of 86 percent of voters. The results were more astonishing when juxtaposed with a recent poll, commissioned by American Traffic Solutions, that showed 66 percent support for the program in that city.

Shawn Dow said he would expect similar results if photo enforcement went before voters in Arizona. Dow heads up a group called Arizona Citizens Against Photo Radar, which is collecting signatures for a proposed ballot initiative that would ban photo enforcement in the state.

“Every time they release a poll showing 62 percent, 72 percent of the public supported it … the next week was an election and they lost by the exact opposite margin,” Dow said.

Precedent is not on the side of photo radar supporters in Arizona either. Peoria residents voted overwhelmingly to ban photo enforcement in 1991.

Babeu said he saw a lot of support for ending Pinal County’s photo radar program during his campaign. He predicted that Brewer will get a boost in the polls from the end of the state’s photo enforcement program. The cameras come down about five weeks before the Aug. 24 Republican primary.

“It’s not the one issue that got me elected, but people really responded to it, and continue to,” he said.

Tuton acknowledged that photo radar has fared poorly nearly everywhere it has gone to a public vote. But there are only a handful of cities that have put the issue before voters, he said, compared to nearly 700 cities where voters have not sought to overturn the programs. Tuton chalked up the election in Sulphur, La., to low voter turnout, the town’s small population – about 22,000 – and an enthusiasm among photo radar opponents that did not exist among supporters.

Wessing said Mesa’s photo enforcement program has garnered complaints, as well as praise, from the public. But he said Mesa hasn’t seen the same level of criticism the statewide program has received, which he said is largely because one of the most onerous charges against photo enforcement – that is used primarily to generate revenue – can’t be leveled against the city. Mesa’s program actually costs money. In some years, he said, the city has paid several hundred thousand dollars to keep the program going.

“It was designed from its very inception to be a revenue-neutral program,” said Wessing, noting that photo radar has not yet reached that goal.

And though photo radar may be nearing its end on Arizona’s freeways and highways, supporters say they expect an increase in accidents to follow, along with an increase in support for photo radar.

“I’m confident that within the next couple years, they’ll be back,” Tuton said. “This is all about messaging.”

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