There were 52 fatal crashes in Tucson last year:10 involved speeding and 3 involved red light running.
Tucson officials are still talking about using cameras to catch speeders and red-light runners even though the devices have worked in dozens of communities and even reduced violations.
The city plans to hold meetings in every ward to build public support, consider an ordinance and then start a yearlong pilot program expected to consist of a speed radar in a van.
But studies have found resistance from residents of one city using speed cameras, while public support was overwhelming for red-light cameras in two other cities.
More than 200 communities across the country use automated enforcement to reduce red-light running, and about 20 use cameras to deter speeding, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The cameras are triggered when a motorist speeds or runs a red light and take pictures of the driver and the vehicle’s license for use in a citation.
Cities in Maricopa County were among the first to embrace the technology, and eight of them now use it. Phoenix, for instance, has red-light cameras at 12 intersections and speed cameras in two vans. The city pays $1 million to American Traffic Solutions of Scottsdale to operate the program.
Tucson needs ward meetings and a pilot program to solidify public support, said Tucson City Councilman José Ibarra, who initiated the call for photo traffic enforcement.
The potential for backlash can be seen in recent bills in the Arizona Legislature restricting photo enforcement and opposition to a Tucson Police Department proposal for cameras to monitor crime downtown, Ibarra said.
By placing a van with speed radar in various neighborhoods, particularly ones with complaints, the city will build support across Tucson, Ibarra said. Then the city can implement a strategy that calls for more cameras, he said.
“That’s not the way I would go about it,” said Simon Washington, an Arizona State University professor who has studied photo enforcement for the state Department of Transportation in metro Phoenix, where cameras are a popular traffic safety tool. “Residents may view it as gimmicky.”
Tucson City Councilwoman Nina Trasoff was unable to get two other members of a council subcommittee on public safety – Ibarra and Councilman Steve Leal – to endorse her request for red-light cameras. She thinks it’s important to build public support for photo enforcement with a pilot program, but adds that “one camera is not going to have any impact” on the city’s traffic safety problems.
Photo enforcement provides relief for a common problem in U.S. cities: an increase in motorists and auto crashes, and not enough police officers to enforce traffic laws.
Tucson had 52 fatal motor-vehicle crashes last year, 13 of which involved red-light running or speeding. Fatal accidents were running at a similar pace through October of this year with 40, including 10 involving red-light running or speeding.
A number of studies have found that photo enforcement reduces traffic violations, said Richard Retting, senior transportation engineer at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Traffic cameras “respond to a real resource issue for police departments,” he said. “There are simply more cars every year and not enough officers to keep up with them.”
In separate studies, the institute found that red-light violations went down more than 40 percent at intersections with cameras in Oxnard, Calif., and Fairfax, Va.
In surveys, residents of each city overwhelmingly supported the use of red-light cameras.
But the institute received a different result when it measured the support of speed cameras in Washington, D.C. Only 51 percent of residents endorsed the use of cameras to regulate speed, even though the cameras had dramatically reduced speeding in parts of the district.
Residents apparently think that speeding is a more subjective problem than red-light running, Retting said.
That attitude was reflected last week at Tucson’s only ward meeting so far on photo enforcement. Among the handful of residents at the meeting, no one voiced support for speed cameras and some complained.
“I don’t want you guys to do anything that’s going to cause people to drive slow,” said Bob Travis, who complained of the increased time of his commute from his Northeast Side home to his engineering job near Tucson International Airport. “There are too many cars on the road and not enough roads being built. That in turn builds frustration.”
Concerns about photo enforcement extended to the Legislature earlier this year. It approved a law requiring signs for photo radar vans, one of 13 bills that aimed to restrict or ban photo speed enforcement, according to The Arizona Republic.
Following the recent installation of a speed camera on Loop 101 in Scottsdale, the percentage of motorists driving over the speed limit went from more than 50 percent to less than half a percent, ASU’s Washington found in an initial assessment of research he’s doing for ADOT.
Still, he doesn’t think Tucson should start its pilot project using a mobile speed camera. Fixed cameras are better recognized by the public and provide a better measure of effectiveness before and after installation, he said.
Washington has also found success in the multicamera approach used by Scottsdale and Phoenix. Crashes involving vehicles hit at an angle or making a left turn went down at intersections with cameras in both cities, although rear-end crashes increased because of people making sudden stops to avoid detection, he found in an ADOT report last year.
He also found the cameras had a “spillover” effect: Crashes declined at intersections without cameras.
The Tucson Police Department supports Ibarra’s request for photo enforcement, in part because it will help address a shortage of police officers and a decline in traditional traffic patrols, said Lt. Mark Pryor, head of Tucson’s traffic unit. Pryor and other officers are making presentations on photo enforcement at the ward meetings.
The results in metro Phoenix show photo enforcement could work in Tucson, even if it costs the city some money, Pryor said.
Cities are required to turn over much of the money collected from traffic fines to the state, so they can’t expect photo enforcement to make money or even pay for itself, he said.
“We could reduce crashes,” Pryor said, “and go to less funerals.”
State law says a motorist facing a red light must “stop before entering the intersection.” The fine is $235 in Tucson. The motorist must also attend traffic school. Fines for speeding range from $142-$352 depending on the speed.
Sources: Arizona Revised Statutes, Tucson City Court
What: Public meetings about photo traffic enforcement will be held in each ward. The first was Nov. 29 in Ward 4. The only other scheduled meeting is in Ward 2, represented by Councilwoman Carol West.
When: 7 p.m. Jan. 4
Where: Eastside City Hall, 7575 E. Speedway Blvd.
ON THE WEB
• Insurance Institute for Highway Safety Web page on speeding, including photo enforcement, www.iihs.org/research/ topics/speed.html
• Insurance Institute for Highway Safety Web page on red light running, including photo enforcement, www.iihs.org/research/ topics/rlr.html
• ASU Professor Simon Washington’s report on photo enforcement in metro Phoenix (Adobe Acrobat required), www.azdot.gov/TPD/ATRC/ publications/project_reports/ PDF/AZ550.pdf