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Close to two-thirds of photos taken by speed cameras tossed

Gotcha!  A traffic camera flashes to catch a speeder on the Piestewa Freeway in  Phoenix. But the person driving may not get a speeding ticket.

Gotcha! A traffic camera flashes to catch a speeder on the Piestewa Freeway in Phoenix. But the person driving may not get a speeding ticket.

Motorists activated photo-enforcement cameras on Arizona highways more than 471,000 times from December through February – more than 5,200 times each day – but on average, only about one-third of those drivers received tickets from the state Department of Public Safety.

An Arizona Republic analysis of three months of records shows Redflex Traffic Systems Inc. and the DPS threw out more than 65 percent of the photos captured.

The reasons for rejecting tickets vary but are relatively uncomplicated: Sun glare, dirty windshields and traffic rank as top causes.

Redflex, a Scottsdale-based company that operates Arizona’s statewide system, has a goal of issuing tickets 80 percent of the time the cameras are activated, DPS Lt. Jeff King said.

A Redflex spokeswoman clarified by saying that figure applies only to photos that aren’t compromised by factors such as the weather. Redflex refused to comment on the expectations or success of the program in Arizona.

King wouldn’t characterize the DPS’ position on the number of activations and the percentage of tickets issued but said the agency is pleased with photo enforcement’s impact on public safety.

“I think there’s always room for improvement, but we also recognize that there are some things outside of everybody’s control. It’s nature. You cannot fix the sun,” King said. “Between sun glare, dirty windshields, shade, there’s really not a whole lot you can do with that.”

Part of the problem in Arizona, King said, is that the state has a driver-responsibility law, like Colorado, California and Oregon. That distinction means DPS officers have to match the photo of the speeder with one on a driver’s license.

Authorities issue notices of violation to owners when a speed camera captures a clear picture of a license plate and a driver. But the vehicle’s owner may deny being the driver. If authorities can’t then match the camera image to a driver’s-license photo, they can’t issue a ticket.

Other states, like Louisiana, have a registered-owner responsibility law, which requires authorities to match only the license plate with a registered owner. The owner gets the ticket, even if he or she wasn’t the one driving.

“I don’t think you could ever get to that perfect 80 percentile that they’re targeting,” King said. “We have to actually be able to look in the picture and identify that person.”

Redflex officials would not discuss the technology that operates the photo-enforcement system, but the cameras have high-powered lenses, King said. The cameras are designed to take high-resolution photos across multiple lanes of traffic.

“We can just about zoom in and see stuff on the dash,” King said.

Motorists occasionally beat the cameras by blocking their faces or having a fortuitously placed visor.

Walter Figueroa’s case, though it didn’t arise from a freeway camera, shows that other factors can be at work, too.

Figueroa received a violation notice in his Laveen mailbox earlier this week for driving 50 mph through a 35-mph zone in Mesa on his motorcycle on April 25.

But Figueroa doesn’t own a motorcycle.

He drives a Nissan SUV, as the violation notes, with a license plate of ONIX.

The citation also contains a picture of a man on a motorcycle, making an obscene gesture toward the camera, with a license plate of ON1X.

“I’m just a little bent. Two people physically signed this ticket,” he said.

American Traffic Solutions operates Mesa’s photo-enforcement system. Figueroa called the toll-free number on the back of the violation, and the operator forwarded his dispute to Mesa police, who issued the ticket.

“What if I was out of state or out of the country and never acknowledged that and missed the court date, then my license is suspended because of their mistake,” Figueroa said. “Did it not behoove you to check my registered vehicles? I don’t even own a motorcycle.”

Legislators approved the statewide program in July, giving the DPS a mandate to install 100 fixed and mobile cameras on Arizona highways.

The DPS suspended the program’s expansion in mid-January, with 36 fixed locations and 42 mobile units in place. The suspension coincided with a wave of anti-photo-enforcement efforts that included residents’ protests and legislative efforts to end the program, but DPS officials insist they suspended the program to seek the best locations for the remaining cameras.

The most recent data from the DPS shows cameras snapped motorists more than 1 million times on Arizona highways during the program’s first seven months.

More than 80,000 drivers have paid the fines.

Arizona has collected nearly $12 million through the process, with more than $1.3 million going to Redflex, according to terms of the contract.

King and other DPS officials cite statistics that show traffic fatalities have dropped dramatically in areas where photo-enforcement cameras are stationed. Critics deride that data, which compared the same 80-day periods in consecutive years, as incomplete.

The April 19 murder of Redflex employee Doug Georgianni while he worked in a mobile photo-enforcement unit near Seventh Avenue and Loop 101 in Phoenix brought the program, and the controversy surrounding it, into the spotlight again.

DPS authorities have tried to focus on photo enforcement’s safety benefits from the beginning but have been plagued by a 2008 prediction from then-Gov. Janet Napolitano that the program could generate as much as $90 million in revenue in the first year.

Critics point to that prediction as evidence that speed cameras are nothing more than a revenue generator masquerading as a safety program.

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