PHOENIX – Arizona communities should put public safety ahead of profits when deciding whether to install traffic cameras through private companies, a public interest group contends in a report released Thursday.
By leaving public safety in the hands of for–profit companies, municipalities forfeit control over which cameras are necessary for safety and which are being used for profit, according to the report released by the Arizona Public Interest Research Group Education Fund.
“It is a real problem,” said Serena Unrein, a spokeswoman for Arizona PIRG. “Too often cities have wrongly signed away their power to ensure the safety of citizens on the road, and the traffic ticketing ends up being governed by contracts that focus on profits rather than safety.”
Traffic cameras, often placed at intersections and school zones to catch speeders or red–light runners, have been installed in 21 jurisdictions across Arizona, according to the report.
Two companies provide more than 80 percent of cameras in the U.S., the report said: American Traffic Solutions, located in Scottsdale, and Redflex Traffic Systems, a division of the Australian Redflex Holdings Limited.
In 2008, then–Gov. Janet Napolitano brought speed cameras to Arizona highways, saying they would generate as much as $90 million for the state in the first year. But two years later, Arizona had only seen $78 million, and the Department of Public Safety let its contract with Redflex expire due in part to the debate over whether the state had installed the cameras primarily to make money.
Tom Herrmann, a spokesman for Redflex, said the group doesn’t promote the idea that profits are more important than saving lives.
“Clearly, cameras change behavior,” Herrmann said in a phone interview. “Clearly, that reduces accidents.”
While the cameras often reduce the number of accidents caused by speeders and red–light runners, they aren’t meant to replace law enforcement officers, said Tom Belshe, deputy director of the League of Arizona Cities and Towns.
“They supplement the good work that our police officers do,” Belshe said in a phone interview. “They’re an important part of the overall public safety program of the city.”
In one Arizona city, though, good intentions were met with disappointing results. Earlier this month, Peoria let its contract with Redflex expire, noting that the number of traffic accidents in monitored intersections had increased by 29 percent between 2008 and 2010.
Jay Davies, a spokesman for the Peoria Police Department, said traffic cameras were placed in four high–accident intersections, but data showed that while the pilot program helped reduce red–light running it didn’t produce the intended outcome overall.
“We’re just in the aftermath of a bit of a failed experiment,” Davies said in a phone interview.
While Unrein said Arizona PIRG doesn’t take an official position on use of traffic camera programs, the report recommended that communities consider other options that may still leave public safety in the hands of cities, such as increasing the duration of yellow lights. She said towns must also proceed with caution when considering private traffic enforcement programs.
“Cities have to make sure that they identify potential pitfalls before they enter into any contracts with camera vendors,” Unrein said.
Joanne Ingram is a reporter for Cronkite News Service