Once celebrated at the state and local levels as an important public safety and budgetary tool, photo-radar enforcement programs have come under fire.
While controversial since their inception, some of Arizona's most influential figures have come out against the state's photo-radar enforcement laws. The ramifications of those objections soon could resonate at the local level as well.
Gov. Jan Brewer has issued her approval of a pair of bills winding through the Arizona Legislature that would effectively ban the systems statewide.
"The governor has commented publicly for the last year that she's not a fan photo radar," said Paul Senseman, a spokesman for Gov. Brewer.
Among Brewer's objections, Senseman said the governor has issues with the reliance on the program for cash.
"The governor was uncomfortable with how it was launched as a revenue generator," Senseman said.
The proposals in question, House Bills 2213 and 2085, would not allow any public agency to initiate new contracts, or renew existing contracts with outside vendors for photo-radar enforcement. The bills would mandate that any tickets given by photo radar be issued by a police officer at the time of the violation.
Adding fuel to the growing fire of public resentment toward automated enforcement, a recent report from the Arizona Auditor General's office said the cameras used on highways across the state have fallen well short of revenue-generating expectations.
The report notes that when approved by former Gov. Janet Napolitano in 2008, the systems were promised to bring at least $90 million into state coffers. But according to Auditor General Debbie Davenport, the traffic-enforcement cameras have brought roughly $37 million instead.
The report analyzed the Department of Public Safety's 36 fixed and 40 mobile enforcement cameras stationed on highways across the state. The DPS contract allows for the expansion of the program to include 120 fixed cameras.
Some of the revenue disparities resulted from apparent overly optimistic projections of how accurately the camera systems would ticket drivers.
"Although it appears that the initial projection considered detection issues such as blurry photos, the extent of those issues may have been under estimated," the report noted.
To that extent, the DPS highway cameras detected more than 1.7 million traffic violations in 2009 but rejected 785,000, or 46 percent.
Davenport also casts doubt on how Napolitano made the initial revenue projection of $90 million, saying the estimate "did not provide details of how this figure was determined."
Senseman said that fiscal 2010 appears to be shaping up as similarly disappointing in terms of revenue reaped from photo enforcement. As of Jan. 14, the state has collected $26.5 million in fines for fiscal 2010, which ends in June. Estimates for the program were actually increased for the current budget year to $120 million in anticipated revenue from photo enforcement, Senseman said.
Across the state, 14 local governments have also implemented photo radar enforcement systems, including Pima County and the city of Tucson.
Among the skeptics locally, Pima County Supervisor Ann Day remains unsold on the effectiveness of the program, which passed the Pima County Board of Supervisors in January 2009.
"At the time, I did not vote for it," Day said. "We had no public discussion and no data that said it would make Pima County's roadways safer."
Day also questioned talks of moving some of the county's 10 photo enforcement cameras to alternate locations.
"Are they being moved because they aren't having an impact on public safety or because they're not generating revenue?" Day said.
Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry said the county intends to add photo radar stations, but would maintain the same number of cameras. The existing cameras would be rotated through the enforcement zones.
"It's basically to continue the deterrent of excessive speeding," Huckelberry said.
He said some county studies have shown that the cameras have reduced the occurrences of excessive speeding in areas as far as one mile from camera stations.
Huckelberry added the county did not do any in-depth financial projections before initiating the program because it did not intend to have photo enforcement used primarily to generate money.
Day said she intends to ask Huckelberry to produce a detailed report that shows exact financial information and estimates of the effect the cameras have had on public safety.
A complete year-end accounting of the county's photo-radar program was not available at the time of this story.
Preliminary data show that from June to September of last year, the county collected more than $2.5 million in fines, fees and surcharges related to photo enforcement. About $980,000 from that total goes to the county in the form of general fund revenue, according to Lindy Funkhouser, assistant Pima County administrator.
Much of the remaining money goes into various state funds used to support the courts, medical funds and 10 percent to the State's Clean Elections Fund — money that political candidates can tap into if they choose not to privately fund their election campaigns. The state adds 84 percent in surcharges to fines, which goes to the various funds.
Pima County has an annual contract with American Traffic Solutions for $1.5 million to operate photo-radar cameras.
Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu has long opposed the use of photo radar, and had the systems taken out of the county following his election in 2008. According to Babeu, use of mobile photo-radar enforcement vans had a negative impact on traffic safety.
"We saw that the portable vans actually increased collisions," Babeu said.
He points to analyses that show a 16 percent increase in the number of collisions occurring near the mobile units. "It doesn't change behavior, only for that moment," Babeu said.
In addition to the public safety issues, Babeu said the use of cameras to enforce traffic laws has damaged public trust toward law enforcement agencies.
"That perishable trust has been badly mismanaged," he said. "The public doesn't like the idea of cameras tracking people and a Big Brother government."
In the absence of photo enforcement, Babeu said that he instituted a traffic unit in the Pinal County Sheriff's Department. The unit was established last February using existing deputies. The county did not have traffic enforcement units prior to Babeu.
"The impact of this is something that we can truly quantify," he said.
For example, traffic units made 200 DUI arrests in December, Babeu said, something photo enforcement can't accomplish. Deputies also make arrests for driving on suspended licenses and of people with outstanding warrants.
While legislators have moved toward a change in the law to eliminate photo-radar enforcement, some citizens groups have formed to get a referendum placed on November ballots that would constitutionally outlaw photo enforcement.
Arizona Citizens Against Photo Radar has proposed the ballot initiative that would end camera enforcement in the state. Another group, camerafraud.com, also supports the measure.
Bill Conley, a Tucson-area spokesman with camerafraud.com and a Pinal County Sheriff's Department reserve officer, said the groups should have more than enough valid signatures to get the question on the ballot.
Among Conley's issues with photo enforcement is the perception that the state has monetized traffic enforcement.
"Our legislative process didn't create these traffic laws to tax the public, they created laws to educate the people," Conley said.
He said cameras don't use discretion the way a live police officer can.
Conley also said the photo radar systems single out Arizona residents, leaving drivers who don't have Arizona license plates off the hook.
"The thing the camera system does is discriminate against Arizona residents," Conley said.
He points to recent changes in the law that made it illegal to have anything blocking the state's name at the top of license plates. He said the cameras don't distinguish between the various states, meaning out-of-state drivers don't get ticketed.
"For the first time, I'm really beginning to despise my government, but not my country," Conley said.
Other issues with the systems involve how tickets are served. In normal traffic stop situations, an officer physically hands a ticket to the offending driver, but with photo enforcement a contractor that operates the system mails the citation. Opponents claim this amounts to improper servicing of legal documents.
"There is no obligation for people to respond," Pinal Sheriff Babeu said.
He said despite law enforcement letterhead and threatening language, the contractors have no standing to serve legal papers by mail.