Photo radar safety impacts hard to decipher while revenue machine is undeniable

Photo radar zones are commonplace on Paradise Valley and Scottsdale streets like this on on the Scottsdale and Paradise Valley border. (File photo)

Photo radar zones are commonplace on Paradise Valley and Scottsdale streets like this one in the Town of Paradise Valley and City Scottsdale border. (File photo)

Driving through Scottsdale and Paradise Valley, motorists are guaranteed to see plenty of upscale resorts, golf courses, restaurants — and most likely a camera along side the road or above an intersection to watch their every move.

Both the municipalities of Scottsdale and Paradise Valley employ the services of photo radar devices throughout their roadways and intersections. Elected leaders say the cameras are meant to help keep motorists from running into each other.

An examination of both traffic and collision data over the last five years, however, suggests assertions that cameras capturing alleged speeders equates to safer streets, intersections and highways becomes muddled by how collision data is collected, housed and interpreted.

But one thing is for certain: Photo radar is a million-dollar business in both the Town of Paradise Valley and the city of Scottsdale.

Records show in fiscal year 2014-15, the Paradise Valley Municipal Court filed 23,722 photo radar cases equating to $2,147,023 paid in fines — of which $1,347,141 was retained by the town.

The cases filed in fiscal year 2014-15 represents an increase of 8,627 in cases filed and an increase of $630,000 in dollars retained by the municipality compared to a year earlier, records obtained by the Independent show.

A view of the Scottsdale Municipal Court, 3700 N. 75th St. in downtown Scottsdale. (File photo)

A view of the Scottsdale Municipal Court, 3700 N. 75th St. in downtown Scottsdale. (File photo)

During this same time period, the Scottsdale Municipal Court filed 43,850 photo radar cases equating to $1,533,864 in dollars retained by the municipality. The cases filed in 2014-15 in Scottsdale represents an increase of 7,442 cases filed and an increase of $431,738 retained by the municipality compared to a year earlier, records show.

Both municipalities have current five-year contracts with separate vendors — Redflex Traffic Systems in Paradise Valley and American Traffic Solutions in Scottsdale — that outline stipulations surrounding equipment maintenance, retention of records and various fees paid per citation and photo site.

According to records, RedFlex was paid $320,936 in fiscal year 2014-15 by the Town of Paradise Valley for services rendered while the city of Scottsdale paid American Traffic Solutions $1,799,821 for services rendered during the same time period.

The Town of Paradise Valley has five fixed photo radar locations each equipped with speed detection capabilities while the city of Scottsdale has 18 locations throughout its city limits.

As clear as mud

Statistical information available at the Arizona Department of Transportation suggests that over the last five years a steady rate of collisions and fatalities are occurring year to year over its numerous data points throughout the state.

Numbers show there were 106,767 collisions resulting in 709 fatalities in calendar year 2009 in Arizona while five years later the number of collisions jumped to 109,767 resulting in 708 fatalities.

However, numbers show in 2006 there were a total of 140,197 collisions resulting in 1,121 fatalities.

While it appears Arizona’s roads in general have gotten safer over the past 10 years, when it comes to Scottsdale and Paradise Valley, no data exists to support what some are quick to believe: That photo radar devices improve safety.

Steve Elliott, a spokesman for ADOT, says his department acts solely as a repository for information and cannot provide analysis of its numbers.

“That report is an annual statistical review of motor vehicle crashes in the state of Arizona rather than an analysis of what’s behind the numbers,” he said in a Jan. 6 phone interview of the crash data reports published by the Department of Transportation.

“However, researchers beyond ADOT often make use of this data. ADOT will use the data for some reports specific to highways, but the agency’s overall role is collecting the information from agencies around the state rather than analyzing and drawing broad conclusions about public safety trends.”

Darcy Nichols, Scottsdale Photo Enforcement Program manager, says the city does not isolate its own data to determine the effectiveness of fixed radar locations in terms of understanding how those cameras are impacting collisions at certain intersections.

“There are currently no studies available through the city of Scottsdale that isolate the accident data specific to the photo enforcement locations,” she said in a Jan. 6 written response to e-mailed questions. “American Traffic Solutions could possibly supply you with trending information related to the number of violations captured and citations issued at each locations.”

Getting specific data regarding the results of photo radar isn’t all that easy to obtain.

American Traffic Solutions did not respond to submitted questions, but Michael Cavaiola of Redflex Traffic Systems did.

Redflex provides photo radar services in the Town of Paradise Valley. Mr. Cavaiola says all data in regard to collisions at intersections is retained by the Paradise Valley Police Department.

“The Town of Paradise Valley Police Department maintains all accident and violation data for the streets in their jurisdiction,” he said in a Jan. 20 written response to e-mailed questions. “Any requests for data would go through the police department.”

The local data pool

The Independent obtained collision reports from three intersections with fixed photo radar equipment on and around those intersections for the last five years — two in Scottsdale and one in Paradise Valley.

The Paradise Valley intersection, Tatum Boulevard and McDonald Drive, has fixed radar equipment at the intersection meant to capture images of speeding motorists and their vehicles while traveling both northbound and southbound.

The Scottsdale intersections, both located along Shea Boulevard at 120th Street and 128th Street, have similar equipment about 900 feet from 120th Street along Shea meant to capture images of speeding motorists and their vehicles while traveling both eastbound and westbound.

Tatum Boulevard and McDonald Drive have seen moderate amounts of collisions over the last five years, according to Paradise Valley Police Lt. Mike Cole. A five-year breakdown illustrates the amount of collisions:

  • In calendar year 2015 there were five accidents.
  • In calendar year 2014 there were two accidents.
  • In calendar year 2013 there were eight accidents.
  • In calendar year 2012 there were five accidents.
  • In calendar year 2011 there were six accidents.

Collision reports obtained from the Scottsdale Traffic Engineering Department paint a similar picture:

  • In fiscal year 2011-12 there were eight collisions at 120th Street while there were three at 128th Street.
  • In fiscal year 2013-14 there were three collisions at 120th Street while there was one collision at 128th Street.
  • So far in fiscal year 2015-16 there have been two accidents at 120th Street while no accident data was provided for 128th Street.

According to Scottsdale Traffic Engineer Andrew Merkely, no meaningful conclusions can be drawn about the impacts the photo radar equipment has on collision rates at either of the Scottsdale intersections because the camera is too far away.

“It should be noted that the collisions occurring near the intersection of 120th Street are not likely influenced by the photo enforcement site located approximately 900 feet east of 120th Street,” he said in a Jan. 19 phone interview.

“The photo enforcement location between 120th and 128th is far enough away of either intersection that if a collision were to occur the photo enforcement equipment likely would not have had any impact on either intersection.”

Mr. Merkely points out the photo radar equipment has been in operation since 2007 but no in-depth analysis has been conducted to determine its effects on road safety.

“I can’t honestly speak to that because we have not done an in-depth analysis of how photo enforcement impacts collisions,” he said. “That particular photo radar location has been in service since August of 2007. We haven’t performed a before-and-after analysis.”

The perception of safety

Elected leaders from both Scottsdale and Paradise Valley say they believe photo radar is a boon to motorist safety, while public safety officials in both jurisdictions provide calculated thoughts.

“The question you ask about measuring the impact of photo enforcement is not a simple one to answer, and includes many variables,” said Ms. Nichols, Scottsdale’s photo enforcement manager,

“Population, traffic volume, and the economy are several factors that impact collision rates, making it difficult to isolate one particular factor. While the police department administers the law enforcement aspect of photo enforcement, traffic engineering and transportation play a role in collecting data and determining enforcement locations.”

Paradise Valley Police Lt. Cole echoed that same temperament.

“At this point that is a very difficult question to answer,” he said. “Photo enforcement has been in effect at the Town of Paradise Valley since before I started here in 1999. From everything I have read, the statistics at the time showed a decrease in traffic accidents after implementation. I think this is a simple comparison when the installation is new. You can just look at the accidents in the year before implementation and compare them to the accidents the year after.”

Lt. Cole says economic development over time plays the largest role when trying to understand traffic trends.

“Twenty years later with all the changes in Valley population, freeway construction, changes in driver behavior it would be very difficult to say what current accident rates would be if we didn’t have photo radar in place,” he said. “I can tell you anecdotally from working patrol in the Town of Paradise Valley most motorist will tell you they are aware of our reputation for traffic enforcement and use of photo radar and say they drive very carefully in our town because of it.”

Scottsdale Councilwoman Virginia Korte says she believes photo radar makes Scottsdale streets safer.

“I have always been told that the statistics and the data support safer streets,” she said in a Jan. 19 phone interview. “If it supports safer streets than I support photo radar.”

Paradise Valley Mayor Michael Collins says he believes photo radar reduces the amount of serious traffic accidents and fatalities.

Michael Collins

Michael Collins

“Traffic engineering for roadway intersections is a science in and of itself and one that my doctoral degree doesn’t cover,” he said in a Jan. 20 written response to e-mail questions.

“But I can say that I’ve read many studies and reports that run counter to each other in terms of determining causation of effects from photo radar station placement. From my layman’s perspective, most of the relevant and applicable data suggests that while the frequency of accidents may fluctuate based on site-specific conditions or variables, the rate of fatalities or serious accidents at these intersections appears almost always to have been reduced.”

While Mayor Collins says he has seen what he believes to be an abuse of the technology — that is not the case in Paradise Valley, he contends.

“Paradise Valley’s use of photo radar technology is all about behavior modification. Always has been, and always should be,” he said.

“I will freely admit that other municipalities appear to abuse both the use of this technology and its due process simply to maintain traffic ticket quotas for revenue purposes. But that is not the Paradise Valley way. In fact, we have some of the longest yellow lights in the Valley, we’ve set our trigger thresholds to target near-felony speeders, we’ve installed signage ahead of each and every device, and we’ve recently lowered our fines.”

Mayor Collins says he believes that photo radar has saved lives in the Town of Paradise Valley.

“I’ve seen numerous national and state studies on the effectiveness of photo radar technology,” he said. “What I know from our experience in Paradise Valley is that these technologies have saved lives at intersections and appear to have reduced rates of speeding through our town over time.”

Northeast Valley Managing Editor Terrance Thornton can be contacted at tthornton@newszap.com

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