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Photo Radar

Citizen Staff Writer

Mark Kimble

Associate Editor

I wasn’t around for the Boston Tea Party, so I can’t describe how riled up those colonial types were 235 years ago when they defied the government and chucked a bunch of tea into Boston Harbor.

The history books describe it as “a direct action protest” in which individuals take things into their own hands.

Had I been at the original Boston Tea Party – not the unrelated Tax Day re-enactments Wednesday -I might have a better understanding of what is going on now with photo radar – those ubiquitous gizmos that snap pictures of speeders, red-light runners and other traffic scofflaws so they can be cited by mail.

I can understand that people nabbed by the units aren’t all that happy with them. But the anti-photo radar movement is made up largely of people who have not been ticketed.

They nonetheless feel the systems are unfair or a violation of their right to privacy or something like that. And they are revolting – in Arizona and around the nation.

I really don’t get it.

Unfair? Is it unfair for cops to have cars with lights hidden behind the grille? Or unmarked cars? Or for them to hide on a side street with a radar gun? This isn’t a game. It’s enforcing laws.

Privacy violation? What right of privacy do you have while speeding or running a red light on a public street? None at all.

Violation of your constitutional rights? I don’t think so. The Founding Fathers were forward-thinking guys, but I can’t find any mention of cameras, radar or even cars in the Constitution.

Nonetheless, I can’t remember anything else the government has done recently that has made people so upset. I’m trying to understand. I really am.

So I asked Joe Scott, marketing director for a Pennsylvania-based outfit called PhantomPlate.com.

Scott’s company has an entire business devoted to beating photo radar in all sorts of ways. Its main product is a database of all known photo radar locations that you can download into your GPS navigation device.

Then when you approach a photo radar location, the thing beeps and you slow down. Keeping the database current costs $39.99 a year.

There also are sprays and plastic covers for your license plate that are supposed to reflect the flash of photo radar and make your license plate unreadable.

Scott tried to explain why photo radar is so objectionable: “Usually when you get pulled over by a police officer, you’ve been doing something wrong,” Scott said. “It’s fair and that’s the way it is.”

Fair. That seems to be the key word used by the anti-photo radar crowd.

Scott said cameras can’t be talked out of issuing a ticket if, for example, you’re speeding on your way to a hospital – something I can’t believe is common.

But there is an irony in Scott’s business. While he makes money defeating photo radar, he doesn’t want to totally defeat it. No photo radar, no business.

Ryan Denke is king of the Arizona anti-photo radar crowd with his Web site, photoradarscam.com.

He’s an unemployed electrical engineer from Peoria who spends his time circulating petitions to put an initiative on the November 2010 ballot to ban photo radar in Arizona.

He says he is “more than confident” he’ll collect enough signatures.

Denke is quick to note that he has “a clean driving record” and has not been nabbed by a radar camera. But his objections center on the fairness issue.

When a human officer nabs you, you can plead your case to the officer and then have the opportunity to face your accuser in court, Denke said.

But when a photo radar-issued ticket arrives in the mail a couple of weeks after the violation, “By then, you don’t know if you were driving that fast,” Denke said.

He also says it’s unfair that as many as half of the vehicles are, in effect, exempt from photo tickets.

Drivers of commercial vehicles can’t be identified and mailed a ticket personally, so companies can ignore citations, he said.

If a plate is obscured – for example, with Scott’s spray – there is no ticket. And drivers from Mexico or another state can ignore photo radar tickets because Arizona won’t track them down, Denke said.

But unless something happens, fighting photo radar is a losing proposition.

At the end of 2006, there were 155 jurisdictions using red-light cameras; two years later, that had more than doubled to 345.

There are 3,000-plus speed and red-light cameras in the nation, up from 2,500 a year ago. The figures are from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

There is, of course an easier and cheaper way to avoid photo radar tickets: Don’t speed or run red lights.

Call the cameras unfair if you like. But also call them omnipresent. And probably here to stay.

Mark Kimble appears at 6:30 p.m. Fridays on the Roundtable segment of “Arizona Illustrated” on KUAT-TV Channel 6. He may be reached at mkimble@tucsoncitizen.com or 573-4662.

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