Cities and counties remain free to enforce traffic laws with radar and cameras, even if it's only to raise money, at least for the time being. The state Senate on Wednesday rejected SB 1352 which would make illegal the use of the automated devices to catch speeders and those who run red lights. The 15-15 vote came despite pleas from backers that the cameras do nothing to improve safety but instead serve as cash cows for sponsoring governments. But moments later, the same chamber gave preliminary approval to a virtually identical measure. The lone difference is that SCR 1029 would give voters the final say.
Senators also approved a separate measure that becomes a Miranda warning of sorts for those who get one of those photo enforcement tickets in the mail. SB 1354 requires that these notices spell out what already is law: The owner of the vehicle, who is the person to whom these are sent, will now be informed that he or she need not identify who else might have been behind the wheel, even if that person is known. And it also says the recipient is not required to respond to the mailed notice. It is only when -- and if -- the motorist is formally served that action is required.
The refusal of lawmakers to outright ban the photo enforcement came despite a plea by Republican Sen. Frank Antenori, who said the experience of his own city of Tucson proves that officials there care more about cash than crashes. He noted that lawmakers approved legislation last year requiring cities to adjust the length of yellow lights. Antenori, who sponsored that measure, said that was designed to preclude cities from trapping motorists with red-light cameras with an unusually short yellow. Antenori said only a few cities have complied.
"What has happened is an entity is making money -- money -- off of covering up what should be properly engineered intersections and then sacrificing what should be the true mission of safety,'' he said.
There is evidence that money is a factor. Last year the Tucson City Council voted to add speed or red-light cameras at four intersections. While council members said they were not revenue-generating devices, the additions were part of the discussion on how the city could raise cash to offset a budget shortfall. Police Chief Roberto Villasenor said the cameras at the four new site could generate $1 million a year, though some would be used to cover costs of the program. Sen. Paula Aboud, D-Tucson, said the decision should be left to local officials. And she said those intersection cameras serve a valid purpose. "When accidents do happen at intersections, the cameras are there and taking photos and can provide the eyewitness accounts for officers,'' she said. Otherwise, Aboud said, officers are left analyzing skid marks and trying to figure out which driver is telling the truth. Sen. John Nelson, R-Litchfield Park, said one problem with longer yellow lights is that it defeats the purpose of intersections, which is to move as much traffic as possible. Nelson, who used to be a member of the Phoenix city council, said the pictures that come from cameras refuses Antenori's contention that longer yellow lights, by themselves, lead to safer intersections. He said they show that people actually speed up as they enter the intersection. "They're still jamming the accelerator down to go through that intersection,'' Nelson said. "And that's where your accidents come from.''
But Senate President Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, said the cameras, particularly those designed to catch speeders, are built on a misunderstanding of Arizona law. He pointed out that, in most cases, the statute makes it illegal to go faster than "reasonable and prudent.'' That, Pearce said, requires a police officer to consider all the factors like weather, time of day and level of traffic, and not just the posted limit. "It is a suggestion, whether we like it or not,'' Pearce said. A camera set at a specific trigger point, he said, cannot compensate for those factors.