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Snap Judgment 

Smile! You just got a speeding ticket!

Think we have too many dangerous drivers on Tucson streets? Lt. Mike Pryor of the Tucson Police Department sure believes we do. His solution: Set up cameras to bust people who speed and run red lights.

As soon as this summer, police will set up cameras at four intersections to nab scofflaws who run red lights and break the speed limit. A mobile van will also roam Tucson's streets, handing out tickets to speeders.

Pryor, who has worked in traffic enforcement for 15 of his 20 years on the force, says he needs the cameras to cut the carnage on Tucson streets.

"Every day in Tucson, people are getting hurt or getting killed in traffic collisions, and many of them are needless," Pryor says. "Almost all of them, in fact, are needless. We had more traffic fatalities last year than we had homicides."

Pryor lays out the unhappy numbers: Last year, Tucson drivers crashed into each other 16,185 times, with someone injured in roughly one out of every three. People were speeding in more than one-third of the collisions.

Fifty-seven Tucsonans were killed in collisions last year. Speeding played a role in nearly one in five of the fatal crashes; in 6 percent of them, people ran red lights.

Earlier this year, the Tucson City Council unanimously green-lighted the photo-radar pilot program, which Pryor hopes to have up and running sometime this summer. The city is nearly finished collecting bids from companies that install cameras around the country, usually for a piece of the action.

Photo-radar is a hot trend in law enforcement. RedFlex, an Australian company with its U.S. headquarters in Scottsdale, was serving 79 cities and counties in 2005; today, it has cameras in 120. American Traffic Solutions Inc., also based in Scottsdale, added 17 new cities in the first quarter of 2007 alone, bringing its total number of clients to close to 60.

One reason: Advances in technology have helped make photo radar increasingly sophisticated and affordable. In some cases, the companies will cover the up-front costs of installing equipment with the promise of a later payday.

Tucson's pilot program will include four cameras set up on traffic lights at intersections and one van that will nab speeders. With the red-light cameras, a sensor in the road detects cars that appear to be moving too quickly to stop when the light is changing to red. That triggers a video camera that records the vehicle as it moves through the intersection and captures a picture of its license plate.

The cameras at intersections also have the ability to catch speeders passing through the intersection on green lights.

The top four intersections for red-light cameras, according to a formal request for proposals issued by the city last month: Broadway Boulevard/Wilmot Road; Grant/Kolb/Tanque Verde roads; Oracle/River roads; and Midvale Park/Valencia roads. Other potential intersections include 22nd Street/Kolb; Grant Road/Alvernon Way; Speedway Boulevard/Kolb Road; and Broadway Boulevard/Kolb Road.

The mobile vans, meanwhile, typically detect cars that are speeding, snap a photo of the driver, and then snap a second photo of the rear of the car to capture the license plate.

The vans will move around the city to different streets, according to Pryor, who says he'll be listing the locations each morning on the city's Web site.

"I don't want it to be secret," Pryor says. "I want everybody who's interested in knowing where it's at to know exactly where it's going to be and when I plan for it to be there."

The cameras are not without controversy. A common argument: The cameras are put in place to raise revenue for cities, not to improve safety.

"Radar" Roy Reyer, a retired police officer who now sells various products to foil photo radar at photobusters.com, says cities are just money hungry.

"When you come down to the crux of it, it's a great way for cities to make a lot of money," he says. "If I were a member of City Council, I'd be all for it. It's a great way to raise taxes without raising taxes."

While Pryor says it's hard to say at this stage how much photo radar will cost--or to project how much money it will bring in--he insists his emphasis is safety, not revenue.

"We're prepared to absorb the entire amount in the budget," Pryor says. "This isn't about making money. This is about traffic safety. If I can put out that van and not write a single ticket on 22nd Street all day long because people slow down and nobody crashes, that's well worth the money."

Until the city reviews the bids later this month, Pryor says he won't know the cost of the program because different companies offer different packages. But he says his research suggests that mobile vans usually lease for $8,000 to $10,000 a month, while cameras mounted on traffic lights cost about half that much.

If Tucson's experience is similar to Scottsdale, which has had photo radar since 1997, the fines will, on average, at least cover the cost of the photo-radar program. In the four-year period ending in 2004, annual photo radar revenue for the city of Scottsdale ranged from a net gain of $280,635 to a loss of $104,664, according to Mike Phillips, spokesman for the city of Scottsdale.

In some years, the city loses money. In 2004, for example, the city issued 20,589 photo-radar citations that were paid by violators, bringing in $1,675,957 in fines. But Phillips said the city lost about $35,586 on photo radar that year because the expenses related to it--including actual police costs and estimated costs for hearing and prosecuting cases--totaled $1,712,543.

Phillips says the city decided to start using photo radar in 1997 because traffic collisions were rising at an alarming pace. Once the system was activated, the trend leveled off, despite the city's population growth. In 1996, the city had 4,680 collisions; in 2003, that number was down to 4,527, even though the population of Scottsdale had increased from 177,000 to 221,000.

Last year, Scottsdale became the first city to implement photo radar on a state highway when it put six cameras on a 6.5-mile stretch of Loop 101 as it passes through the city. A preliminary study by ASU professor Simon Washington showed that the number of people exceeding 75 mph--11 miles per hour above the speed limit--dropped from an average of 162 per day during the warning period to 129 during the pilot program. Once the program ended, the number of speeders skyrocketed to an average of 1,259 per day.

The pilot program also reduced single-vehicle crashes by 71 percent and sideswiping crashes by nearly 58 percent. Rear-end collisions, however, increased by 33 percent.

Phillips says the traffic moves much more smoothly in the stretch that uses photo radar.

"It was an unexpected benefit of the program," Phillips says. "It's amazing when you drive this section of the freeway."

The numbers from the Loop 101 pilot project so impressed Gov. Janet Napolitano that she asked Scottsdale Mayor Mary Manross to turn the cameras back on. The photo-radar program resumed operation in February.

Napolitano also wants to expand the program to other highways in the state. Although some states have experimented with photo radar, Napolitano's proposal would be a first in the nation, says Department of Public Safety Commander Tom Woodward.

State officials are looking at using the photo radar in both urban and rural settings, although it would likely be a fixed system rather than mobile vans, says Woodward. He says it could be anywhere from six months to a year and a half before the department is ready to implement photo-radar enforcement.

"It's still pretty much in the conceptual stage," Woodward says. "There are a lot of logistics to work out."

The idea of a statewide system has some Republican lawmakers worried. Sen. Pamela Gorman, who was among the drivers who got a photo-radar ticket on Loop 101, says that she's concerned that savvy drivers will slow down in areas where the cameras are set up, but other drivers who are unaware of them will continue to speed. She thinks having cars moving at different speeds can be dangerous.

"If they don't know the cameras are there, they're weaving around everybody who did slow down," says Gorman, a Republican who represents northern Phoenix and the Anthem area. "I just think that's not a precedent we want to set statewide."

She's also worried that the bright flash from the camera could distract drivers.

Sen. Ron Gould, a Republican who represents the Lake Havasu area, has sponsored legislation that would ask voters to approve photo radar use on the highways.

Gorman frets that the measure, which has stalled in the Senate, could easily backfire.

"Everybody loves photo radar except for those who get a ticket," Gorman says. "You're taking a risk that if the voters say yes to photo radar in a voter-protected proposition, then we can't even change it later."

Earlier this year, Gorman was among the Republicans on the Senate Transportation committee who killed a bill that would have outlawed clear, plastic license-plate covers that may distort photos. She says she was less concerned about photo radar and more concerned about a DPS program that was photographing the license plates of all cars to check for stolen license plates. She's worried that there's no statute regarding how that information is handled once it has been collected.

"Until you have determined that it's criminal to mishandle that information on law-abiding citizens who have done nothing wrong except properly license their vehicle and drive on our streets, you shouldn't be collecting information on those people and storing it on a database," Gorman says. "The Big Brother issue comes in when you're snapping pictures of people who haven't even broken the law."

Gorman worries that as photo radar expands to more locations, people will get more tickets and could even rack up enough violations over a two-year period to lose their licenses.

She's also concerned that the cameras will take the place of officers on patrol.

"The more we begin to depend on machines, the less we have of actual police enforcement, and we need police on our streets," Gorman says.

But both Woodward and Pryor insist that photo radar will complement the current patrols.

"It's not replacing police officers," Pryor says. "It's going to enhance what we're already doing. And it's going to make people more aware of their driving. That's going to result in safer streets."

Pryor says that traffic flow has a big impact on the city's quality of life.

"If you get in your car in the morning and by the time you get to work, you're pulling your hair out, you've spilled your coffee, you've had a horrible experience--that affects your quality of life, whether you got run into or not. I think Tucsonans want to have a higher quality of life on their roadways, and safer drivers and more aware drivers means more quality of life on the roads."

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More by Jim Nintzel

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