State study disputes photo radar benefits - East Valley Tribune: News

State study disputes photo radar benefits

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Posted: Wednesday, January 20, 2010 6:14 pm | Updated: 3:37 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

Arizona's new statewide photo radar system isn't generating anywhere near the cash that was touted as violators can't be identified and citations remain unpaid.

And the Auditor General's Office, which conducted the study, also concluded there's no evidence it's actually achieved its other goal of making Arizona highways safer.

While the report makes no recommendations on the future of the program, its contents are likely to become the focal point of efforts by some to save the system and efforts by others to make it go away.

That latter category includes Gov. Jan Brewer, who said last week she will let the two-year contract with Redflex Traffic Systems lapse when it ends this summer. The only way she will agree to let it come back is if voters decide otherwise, something that can't happen before November.

Lt. Jeff King of the Department of Public Safety, which oversees the program, said there are some good reasons the cash hasn't rolled in as fast as anticipated, including the fact that there were fewer photo radar units deployed than the 100 anticipated. Instead the state has 36 fixed locations and 40 mobile vans.

King also disputed the report's contention there has been no effect on public safety. He said collisions on state roads decreased because of the deterrent effect of the cameras, all of which are marked with at least two signs to warn approaching motorists.

"We don't hide these things. We don't put them behind poles. We don't paint them camouflage colors," he said. And that, he said, makes the amount of money collected irrelevant.

The program was ordered put in place in 2008 by then Gov. Janet Napolitano. She said an experiment by Scottsdale along the Loop 101 freeway proved it reduced speeding and saved lives.

But Napolitano acknowledged an ulterior motive: She said the state would clear at least $90 million a year in fines, even after the company operating the system took its cut.

It hasn't worked out that way: Auditor General Debbie Davenport said only $37 million was actually collected during the system's first full year of operation.

Exactly why, though, is a bit more complex.

First is that a notice of violation - the first step in the process - requires a clear photo of the vehicle's license plate and driver. But of the 1.7 million times a speeding violation was detected, Redflex threw out about 785,000 for reasons ranging from sun glare to another vehicle obstructing the photo.

Of what remains, some were not considered "payable" because the registered owner of the vehicle clearly does not match the driver, as is the case with rental cars and commercial vehicles registered to companies. But some are situations in which the vehicle is registered to someone named "Susan" but the driver is clearly a bearded male.

That goes to the fact that, out of 12 states (and the District of Columbia) with similar programs, Arizona is one of only three that holds only the driver responsible. The registered owner can - but is not required to - disclose to DPS who is the driver.

That leaves about 653,000 payable notices mailed out. Of those, only about 243,000 were actually paid.

The audit report said some of that relates to the driver responsibility law.

Davenport said close to 350,000 vehicle owners claimed they were not the person behind the wheel, though more than 100,000 owners did tell DPS who was driving.

And King said up to 80,000 notices issued in the first year are still being contested in court. He said many of these ultimately are going to be paid.

But he said the real measure of the success is his agency's belief the mere presence of the cameras save lives.

Davenport acknowledged there has been a decline in fatal crashes each quarter the program was in operation compared with the same periods in the two years prior. But she said there also were declines in the quarters before there was photo radar from earlier periods.

King said those earlier declines were due to crackdowns on both those who drive drunk and those who continue to drive after their licenses have been suspended. He said the most recent decline came even after budget cuts reduced DPS officers on the highway, with the photo radar units becoming a "tool" to help fill that gap.

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