Speeding drivers beware: Photoradar may be coming to Tucson.

By this time next year, local motorists may be seeing themselves in pictures--compliments of the Tucson Police Department.

In an effort to combat what appears to be a losing battle against speeders and red-light runners, TPD is looking to employ photoradar. This technological enforcement tool would supplement the current force of traffic officers now on the street.

Using equipment from Affiliated Computer Services Inc., the department earlier this year tested photoradar along several major arterials around town, including Golf Links Road, Speedway Boulevard and Kolb Road. While awaiting a breakdown of overall traffic speeds on those streets, Sgt. Ramon Batista says of the system: "It was very effective at monitoring a large volume of traffic at once."

The process is relatively simple. An officer sits in a clearly marked white van, which has "Photoradar Ahead" signs posted near it, and watches for excessive speeders or red-light runners. While the equipment takes front and rear pictures of a potential violator, the officer makes notes on the same vehicle.

A ticket is then mailed to the registered driver of the car, but only if certain criteria are met. These safeguards impress Batista.

"The citation is backed up by a live body," he says, adding that a ticket might not be issued for several reasons, such as if the photo and officer's notes don't match, or if one of the pictures is blurred.

Bill Burke, program manager for ACS, estimates that up to 5 percent of drivers will still exceed the posted speed limit by 11 mph or more, even though they have been warned the system is in use nearby. It is that excessive speed which some police departments set as their standard for photoradar enforcement.

Those dimwitted drivers who zip past the identified police van could end up paying a high price for their lead foot. While there are no up-front costs for the photoradar equipment, in order to utilize the system, communities contract with companies like ACS--and tickets include a hefty surcharge to pay the firms. Lt. Wayne Lorch of the Phoenix Police Department says red-light runners there get mailed a citation for $201, almost half of which goes to the vendor. But, he adds, they only get paid if the ticket is paid.

To try and avoid these costly photoradar generated tickets, some drivers have resorted to devious means. They attempt to partially hide their license plate from view or paint it with a metallic substance which blurs the photograph. Burke indicates, however, that he works to insure the technology triumphs over these moves.

Lorch says that for the past two years, Phoenix has employed photoradar to supplement traffic enforcement in school zones and to stop red-light runners. He thinks the program has reduced the number of car crashes and says he is happy with the results.

But Lorch also points out that some people complain photoradar is simply a money-making proposition for the police. His reply: The department loses money on it, but does it anyway in order to enhance safety.

A decade ago, photoradar was highly controversial in some Phoenix suburbs, but Lorch believes that view is changing.

"Police manpower is very expensive," he says, "and this system is cost-effective, so why not use the technology?"

Batista, of TPD, is also aware of potential controversy caused by people complaining about the use of cameras to crack down on traffic violations. Because of that, he says, "We want to hear public opinion both ways on the issue."

After a recent visit to Mesa to see its use of the system, Batista said that city employs civilians in its photoradar program and also loses a little money on it. Despite that, and even though he was skeptical of the technology at first, he now believes photoradar makes sense in Tucson, on both major and minor streets.

"The idea is to slow traffic down," he says. "Where speed is a factor in accidents at intersections, I think photoradar will definitely help."

Captain Tom McNally, of TPD's traffic division, indicates the department is conducting an internal operational assessment of a possible photoradar program. After the review is completed, he expects that within six months, a proposal may be forwarded to the City Council for its consideration.

If the council approves it, a vendor to supply the equipment would then be selected.

Thus, by next summer, Tucson drivers may have to be saying "cheese" as they speed home.

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