Officers on Oracle

After an increase in serious traffic accidents, the town of Oro Valley cracks down

Since its inception 40 years ago, the town of Oro Valley and its police force have had a reputation for speed traps and ticket-writing quotas. True or not, the perception exists.

But with injury-causing car crashes trending toward an all-time high in Oro Valley, the town is actually tapping into that reputation in hopes of saving lives and making its streets safer.

This week, the Oro Valley Police Department held the first of what it says will be a series of "high-visibility enforcement" deployments for its motorcycle officers. Referred to as HiVE details, the first pair of rollouts saw four motorcycles camped out along Oracle Road near the intersections with Suffolk Drive and Magee Road, on the south edge of the town.

Those intersections account for about 25 percent of all injury-involved crashes in Oro Valley over the past few years, Mayor Satish Hiremath said.

"I don't think there's really been any other area that's been that problematic," Hiremath said.

The deployments aren't meant to secretive, town officials say. They issued a press release a week before the first detail, and further announcements are planned to let motorists know ahead of time that there will be an increased police presence in the area.

"We want people to know when we're going to be there; we want people to see us," said Lt. Chris Olson, head of the Oro Valley Police Department's Special Operations Division. "We want to be noticed."

As of last week, Oro Valley had logged 58 crashes that resulted in injury or death in 2012. Only 60 were registered in all of 2011. Two of the crashes this year have been fatal, including an Aug. 11 wreck that killed 62-year-old John Kostelny when he was rear-ended on his motorcycle while stopped at a light at Oracle Road and First Avenue.

The driver who allegedly struck him, Francisco Villalpando, has been indicted on a manslaughter charge.

A second fatal accident occurred in the town in January. Bessie Datt, 78, was killed crossing Oracle Road at La Reserve Drive when a driver who had a green light struck her. No charges were filed, because the driver wasn't considered at fault.

While two fatal collisions might not seem like a lot—Tucson has had 22 so far this year—that's considered a whopper of a tally in Oro Valley.

"We've gone years with zero," Olson said.

Oro Valley is on pace to surpass its all-time high of 94 wrecks, recorded in 2010. That kind of ominous record is why Olson said he pushed to saturate high-volume traffic areas with motorcycle cops. It's about keeping the streets safe, not making money, he said.

"We're not interested in the citations," Olson said. "We won't necessarily look to get nitpicky, but we will be inclined to stop people. It doesn't really matter when we deploy; we just want (drivers) to see us."

Though neither of this year's fatal accidents happened in the area of this week's deployments, the high volume of injury crashes there, combined with the fact that Oracle Road sees more than 50,000 vehicle trips per day, means most of Oro Valley's HiVE details will be along Oracle, which is technically a state highway, but is policed by town officers.

"We're not going to put these motor officers in an area that doesn't demonstrate this need," Olson said.

Even with all of the advance notice and explanation, Olson said he won't be surprised if watchdogs and other critics cite the effort as an Oro Valley money-grab. The lieutenant said he's heard the revenue-generating gripes throughout his 11 years with the town, but he points out that in 2011, his department issued 1,755 speeding tickets, or just less than five per day.

"Even if you just use the (traffic) numbers for Oracle, that's one speeding ticket for every 10,000 cars," Olson said. "Yet we still can't seem to shake that reputation."

Hiremath, who credits the deployment as the kind of out-of-the-box ideas he's pushed his department heads to come up with, said, "The town of Oro Valley, by statute, only gets $18 of every ticket that we write. There are a lot easier ways to generate revenue."

No time frame has been set for the next set of HiVE details; much will be determined by how the first deployments go. When they're set to occur, though, Olson said anyone who drives through Oro Valley will get fair warning.

"We will publish dates, times and locations a week ahead of time, just like Tucson (police) does with its radar vans," Olson said. "Over the next 90 days, I hope we make a significant impact. We don't want to see the same numbers as in 2010."