- New York Times -
More than a year after Arizona became the first state in the country to deploy dozens of speed cameras on highways statewide, threats to the groundbreaking program abound.
Profits are far below expectations, a citizen effort to ban the cameras is gaining steam, the governor has said she does not like the program, and more and more drivers are ignoring the tickets they get in the mail after hearing from fellow speeders that there are often no consequences to doing so.
“I see all the cameras in Arizona completely coming down ” in 2010, said Shawn Dow, chairman of Arizona Citizens Against Photo Radar, which is trying to get a measure banning the cameras on the November ballot. “The citizens of Arizona took away the cash cow of Arizona by refusing to pay.”
The Arizona Department of Public Safety introduced the cameras in September 2008 and slowly added more until all 76 were up and running by January.
Supporters say the cameras slow down drivers and reduce accidents, but opponents argue that they are intrusive and are more about making money than safety.
More than 300 communities in 25 states use cameras similar to Arizona’s, including New York, Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, D.C. But the backlash seems to be particularly intense in Arizona. Some people have shown their distaste with the cameras by covering them with boxes, sticky notes and Silly String. In locally infamous cases, one man took a pickax to a camera and another purposefully set off the cameras dozens of times while wearing a monkey mask.
Lt. Jeff King, photo enforcement district commander for the Department of Public Safety, said his agency just wanted drivers to go the speed limit and did not understand all the backlash.
“Instead of spending so much time focusing on getting rid of cameras, why don’t they focus on the real problem, the root problem, which is getting people to drive the speed limit?" Lieutenant King said. “If everyone was to drive the speed limit, the cameras would never flash.”
The cameras led to more than 700,000 tickets to drivers going 11 miles per hour or more over the speed limit from September 2008 to September 2009, the most recent data available, according to the Department of Public Safety. The mandated fines and surcharges on all those tickets would total more than $127 million, but they had generated just $36.8 million through September, Lieutenant King said.
Some of the people who got those tickets are contesting them in court and could end up having to pay the fine, but many of them have gone unpaid because drivers know they have a good shot at getting away with ignoring them. When people get tickets, they can pay without question, request a court date and fight the ticket, or simply ignore the ticket because law enforcement cannot prove they received it. The ticket becomes invalid if a violator who ignores it is not served in person within three months. It is nearly impossible to say how many people have ignored their tickets because courts do not track the figure.
Whatever the figure, overtaxed process servers cannot get to most of those people, and many of the citations go unpaid. That is part of the reason the speed cameras have not made as much money as expected. While certain to increase, that $36.8 million in revenue through September will still fall far below the $120 million a year that former Gov. Janet Napolitano hoped to put in the state’s coffers when she ordered up the program in early 2007.
The camera operator, Redflex, may not even be breaking even. It cost the company $16 million to install the cameras, and it got back $4.6 million from September 2008 to June, Lieutenant King said.