Key East Valley lawmakers want you to be able to drive faster in Arizona and face weaker penalties if you get caught.
At the same time, the legislators would ensure drivers never had to worry about photo enforcement on highways. In fact, a proposed restriction on existing photo enforcement could boost the cost of existing programs in a way that could force communities to abandon the technology.
The bills represent a flurry of efforts to change speed and sometimes unpopular photo enforcement laws in Arizona. Their backers say they’re trying to rein in photo enforcement because it does little to improve safety and may even cause collisions as drivers slam on their brakes after spotting the equipment.
But police and the Arizona Department of Transportation see the bills as an assault on efforts to keep roads safe by controlling speed. ADOT director Victor Mendez said lawmakers this year have introduced an unusually large number of bills that cause him concern.
"It’s a negative to highway safety," Mendez said. "It sends a message that it’s OK to drive even faster."
Under SB1329, ADOT would be able to boost speed limits to 80 mph on highways. And SB1324 would let the agency set speed limits to the 85th percentile of traffic — meaning the speed limit would be set at or below the speed that 85 percent of drivers are going.
That’s already a key factor in setting speed limits, ADOT spokesman Doug Nintzel said. But ADOT is concerned the bill doesn’t let ADOT consider other key safety factors like crash histories, road conditions and sight lines.
"We’re worried that it would have us setting speed limits that would encourage people to drive even faster and that’s not our goal," Nintzel said.
Another round of bills would limit photo enforcement.
SB1164 would head off Scottsdale’s plans to put photo enforcement on its portion of Loop 101 by banning the technology on freeways. Sen. Thayer Verschoor, R-Gilbert, said photo enforcement is unproven on freeways in the United States and could cause crashes by triggering drivers to slam on their brakes when cameras flash. He and Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, say photo enforcement will create a false sense of safety despite a chronic shortage of highway patrol officers. They say they prefer more officers, who can spot impaired and aggressive drivers and get them off the road.
"In some cases we need to get them off the road immediately and with photo radar, you don’t get the immediate response," Biggs said.
Scottsdale officials say they’re under intense pressure from residents to curb speed and the number of deaths on the freeway. Surveys of residents show about 75 percent support photo enforcement expansion, said Bruce Kalin, a police employee who oversees the program.
That argument found traction with some photo enforcement critics, such as Sen. Carolyn Allen, R-Scottsdale. She opposed two bills that would have restricted photo enforcement after listening to police cite its approval ratings and cuts in the number of speeders on Frank Lloyd Wright Boulevard.
Another measure, SB1328, would have let drivers avoid points on their license if they paid a photo enforcement ticket within 21 days. Verschoor — a critic of photo enforcement — said this would improve the system because so many people try to escape paying by ignoring the citation and trying to dodge process servers. More drivers would "do the right thing" and pay the citation if they knew they could avoid points, he said.
"This bill isn’t attacking photo radar," Verschoor said. "It’s almost counter of my intentions and helping photo radar."
Biggs said cities can’t back up their claim that getting rid of points will ease the pain of a citation. He added the points apply if drivers ignore the citation.
In Paradise Valley — where homes typically sell for $1 million — many residents would have no incentive to slow down, Councilwoman Virginia Simpson said. Only those who have trouble affording the fine would feel the sting of a photo enforcement citation, she said.
Paradise Valley Police Chief John Wintersteen said too many drivers focus on points because that could lead to their license being suspended.
"I believe more of them concentrate on the points than on their own safety," Wintersteen said.
That bill failed in committee. But the House Transportation Committee voted 6-3 Thursday on a bill that has some similar provisions. HB2260 would remove points from photo enforcement citations. And it would require a court hearing on each citation — something critics say would bog down the court system and waste police time by requiring officers to appear in court.
Rep. Meg Burton-Cahill, DTempe, said she was alarmed at the hostility by some East Valley Republican lawmakers to the use of photo enforcement.
"I fear someone is going to die from ASU on Rural Road," Burton-Cahill said. "Each of these bills on photo radar weaken their teeth."
Rep. Tom Prezelski, DTucson, had similar concerns. "We have to remember here we are talking about behavior that threatens people’s lives," he said.