Intense Backlash Against Arizona Speed Cameras

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One of the three dozen fixed speed enforcement cameras lining the highways around Phoenix. i

One of the three dozen fixed speed enforcement cameras lining the highways around Phoenix. Ted Robbins/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Ted Robbins/NPR
One of the three dozen fixed speed enforcement cameras lining the highways around Phoenix.

One of the three dozen fixed speed enforcement cameras lining the highways around Phoenix.

Ted Robbins/NPR

When it comes to photo enforcement speed cameras, Arizona has gone all in. There are 36 fixed cameras in the Phoenix area, and another 40 mobile camera vans sit on the side of highways around the state.

The cameras went up across the state's highways in November 2008. Since then, Department of Public Safety spokesman Bart Graves says drivers have been slowing down and paying attention.

"For a good year after they put the cameras here, they had no fatal or serious collision calls in this part of the valley," he says.

Statistics for last year show highway fatalities dropped 25 percent statewide — that's 81 fewer deaths. The cameras may or may not be directly responsible for the drop in highway deaths, but there's no question they're responsible for an increase in state revenue.

More than 650,000 tickets were mailed last year from Redflex, the private company that has the photo enforcement contract in Arizona. At $181 a pop, it added up to $37 million to the state's coffers. That's actually a lot less than the state thought it would make. In fact, if you do the math, you'll figure out that only a tad more than a third of the drivers who got tickets in the mail paid them.

Operators at Redflex stay busy dealing with disgruntled drivers. Workers at the company have been harassed so much, they don't want their names used on the air.

Employee harassment is just part of the hostile response in Arizona over statewide photo enforcement. Since state law requires that citations be served in person, drivers routinely ignore tickets. Arizona also requires clear photos of license plates and faces — one Phoenix driver avoided paying 37 speeding tickets by wearing a monkey mask. It's even gotten violent.

A 68-year-old man is set to stand trial for pulling up to a photo van and firing five shots into it. It resulted in the death of a worker operating the photo radar van.

That was an extreme incident.

The main complaints are that photo enforcement is an invasion of privacy, that it's unfair, inaccurate — even illegal — and that Redflex is just in it to get its cut. The company makes about $30 per paid ticket. But Redflex spokesman Jay Heiler says a law enforcement officer looks at every violation before it goes out.

"There is no desire on the part of Redflex, and no incentive, no motive, to send notice of violation to people unless there's been a violation. If we did that, we would go out of business immediately," Heiler says.

Redflex, which has its headquarters in Australia, is the largest photo enforcement company in the U.S. It has contracts with jurisdictions in 22 states. Its U.S. base is in Phoenix, so Heiler sees and hears the opposition firsthand. He says the arguments against photo enforcement are smoke screens.

"Our technology is providing a wider span of enforcement for traffic laws. That's what people really don't like," Heiler says.

Opponents have gotten the attention of politicians. Republican Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer discounts the effectiveness of photo enforcement. She says the system was misleadingly implemented by former Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano as a way to raise money.

"That is exactly the only reason it was established on the roads in the state of Arizona — was to generate revenue. And it's inherently wrong and un-American," Brewer says.

The governor says she won't renew the state contract with Redflex when it expires this summer. Meanwhile, several bills to kill the program are moving through the Arizona Legislature. And a citizen's group is collecting signatures for a November ballot measure to outlaw statewide photo speed enforcement.

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