Candid Camera

Smile! If the city's sales tax proposal passes, you may be under the watchful eye of a video enforcement program.

When city officials talk about the half-cent sales-tax proposition voters will decide on May 21, they often tout a disturbing statistic about Tucson's streets: a national study rated the city the fourth deadliest in the nation per capita in accidents caused by people who run red lights.

The city's proposed solution? A pilot program that would use video cameras to catch drivers who run red lights. City staffers say the cameras would act as a deterrent, decreasing the fatalities from such accidents.

But even without the pricey program, those fatalities are already declining. Last year, according to the Tucson Police Department, only two people died in collisions caused by drivers who ran red lights. That was down from three the previous year and seven in 1999.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety study cited by city officials was based on 34 fatalities in crashes at red lights in Tucson between 1992 and 1998, which averages to 7.6 deaths per 100,000 residents. Phoenix was rated the deadliest U.S. city per capita, with 10.8 deaths per 100,000 residents. Mesa rated third, with 7.8 fatalities per 100,000.

The study showed that more than 800 people die nationwide each year and an estimated 200,000-plus are injured in crashes that involve drivers who run red lights.

Despite the local drop in fatalities at red lights, Tucson Police Lt. Marty Moreno, who commands the city's traffic division, warns that the streets of Tucson remain dangerous.

"It's horrible," Moreno says. "I mean, my officers go out and just write volumes of citations. It's just amazing how many accidents we go to. Last weekend, we had five fatal collisions."

The biggest cause of accidents is the failure of drivers to reduce speed. "We have folks who are in too much of a hurry," he says.

Of the 17,030 collisions last year, 757 drivers were cited for causing accidents while running red lights, while another 880 were cited for failing to yield while making a left turn at an intersection with a signal, according to Moreno. That was down from the 778 drivers who were cited in crashes after running red lights and 938 drivers who were cited for failing to yield while making a left at a signal in 2000.

Moreno notes that his statistics aren't totally reliable because they rely on the information from drivers who may misstate the cause of the crash.

Moreno says he'd like to use automated technology to catch speeders as well as drivers who run red lights, but transportation staffers say they're only considering the latter program.

The pilot program was slipped into the sales tax proposal when a citizen committee, working with transportation staffers, passed a recommendation to the City Council last December. It's a relatively minor element in the proposition, which will raise an estimated $40 million a year for the next decade if voters approve it next month. City officials say 45 percent of the new money, or roughly $170 million, will go for widening major streets, including at least $50 million for three grade-separated intersections; 37 percent will pay for paving residential streets; and 18 percent will be spent on mass transit to reverse cutbacks in the program in recent years.

Mayor Bob Walkup supports the pilot program, although he's opposed to an automated program to catch speeders.

"I think that we need to find out how well it works in Tucson," says Walkup. "It's something that's been talked about and it's not very expensive to find out how well it works. I think we owe it to the public to say, 'Hey we tried it, here's the data.'

"The public might say, 'Hey, the pain is not worth the gain,' " Walkup adds. "You can only do it through research and analysis."

But Walkup's fellow Republican on the council, Fred Ronstadt, expresses misgivings about the program.

"The issue of privacy and the legal issues surrounding it concern me," says Ronstadt. "I'd rather see more police officers on the street than a camera. A camera is an extraordinarily poor substitute for a police officer."

Ronstadt's comments came after months of promises by elected officials that voters will get everything in the package.

"You're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't," Ronstadt said. "One the one hand, you could say it's on there but we're not going to do it, potentially. But I think it's safer to put it on there so if we do it, it's not like we're shifting resources. The biggest criticism I'm trying to protect against is the criticism of taking the new resources and put them into something the voters have not seen."

Similar automated enforcement programs have been put into place in roughly 60 cities and counties around the country in recent years, sometimes with considerable controversy. In San Diego last year, a judge threw out about 300 tickets, ruling that the evidence was unreliable and that allowing the company that designed the cameras to get a percentage of the fines for administrating the program violated state law.

City transportation officials hope to avoid a similar legal wrinkle by buying the cameras and software so an independent company won't have a piece of the action.

"We own the cameras and are not directly involved with an outside supplier of that service," says Richard Nassi, an administrator with the city Transportation Department.

Nassi says the city has been considering a system called Crossing Guard, developed by Nestor Traffic Systems of Providence, R.I.

Crossing Guard is a sophisticated software product that uses radar technology to identify vehicles approaching intersections so fast that they're unlikely to stop for red lights. Once a speeding vehicle activates the system, a digital video camera records a brief clip of the incident. At the same time, the traffic signals delays the green light for cross-street traffic to decrease the likelihood of a collision, according to Nestor spokeswoman Carolyn Beaudry.

Nassi says the proposed program "is in the early, early stages." He has no firm cost estimate, but guesses the cameras will cost about $100,000 per intersection, with the city buying between five and 10 units.

Some voters remain uneasy about the video surveillance.

"There's any number of problems with them," says Scott Wood, a co-owner of Pryde Business Systems. "Let's say a car does run the red light. There's no guarantee that the person who's in the car owns the car, as far as registration goes. But the person who owns the car is getting the ticket."

The lifelong Republican adds that he's concerned about the "Big Brother aspect of it all."

"I guess I was always of the opinion that if I do something wrong, a cop is out there and he catches me, I get cited for it," Wood says. "If we're going to have cameras, why do we need cops?"

Phil Murphy, a local Libertarian who has lost two congressional races against U.S. Rep. Jim Kolbe, says he thinks the program is a revenue-generating scheme by the city.

Nassi says the program could prove so costly to implement that the city may lose money on it.

"The city probably wouldn't make any money, because it takes a lot to install them and a lot of operate them," Nassi says.

Wood says he has yet to decide how he'll vote on the sales-tax hike, but he's leaning against it--and not just because of the automated enforcement.

"To be honest with you, I don't see anything that's going to make it easier in this entire plan that's going to make it any easier to get across town," Wood says.