The photo radar quandary: for the love of money or the safety of motorists?

As both photo radar and video capability expand the Scottsdale Transportation Management Center’s wall of screens allows engineers to observe local traffic behavior and data in real time. (File photo)

It’s not about the million of dollars retained by a municipality. And, it’s not about the millions of dollars given to the Arizona Legislature or the money provided to the exclusive vendors.

No, proponents contend photo radar has less to do with money and more about motorist safety and behavior modification.

On an annual basis, millions of dollars change hands in the municipalities of Scottsdale and Paradise Valley — a direct result of speeding tickets snapped by photo radar devices — with more than $1 million funneled back into their respective General Funds.

But elected officials say those funds aren’t necessarily a windfall of profits for the cities. Administrative costs, they say, typically eat up photo radar profits.

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

They do, however, defend the use of photo radar and say streets are safer because of the cameras. If you aren’t speeding, they say, you don’t even know they are there.

But not every public official supports the use of photo radar. One state representative from the Gilbert is again seeking to end photo radar on municipal streets.

Rep. Travis Grantham introduced HB 2208, which is a formal measure to prohibit the use of photo radar on municipal streets in Arizona. The proposed legislation passed the Arizona House of Representatives on Thursday, Feb. 8 by a 31 to 27 vote.

“It is unsafe, unconstitutional and photo radar’s primary purpose is to serve as a revenue generator on our most heavily traveled streets and roads,” Rep. Grantham said in a statement to the Independent.

“The privatization of law enforcement that (gives) incentives a for-profit company to issue more and more tickets to people is unacceptable.”

Rep. Grantham says dollars and cents are the main motivators for local cities and towns who allow photo radar on their street. He believes the safety argument has largely been unproven.

“I’ve seen the data,” he said. “When unbiased studies are done they often show an increase in accidents, especially rear-end collisions. Revenue has often been the main talking point of cities and towns when defending the practice of using photo radar.”

Both Paradise Valley and Scottsdale 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.

The Town of Paradise Valley has 14 fixed photo radar locations each equipped with speed-detection capabilities, while Scottsdale has 10 fixed locations throughout its city limits.

In fiscal year 2016-17, the city of Scottsdale issued 49,191 photo radar tickets, which accounted for $6,827,127 in gross fine remits — while $2,941,825 was provided to the state and county and $1,622,653 was paid to American Traffic Systems, $979,221 went to the city’s court enhancement fund which pays to “enhance the technological, operational and security capabilities of the city court,” and a total of $1,283,476 was left over and classified as a “city surplus,” according to the result of a public records request.

In fiscal year 2016-17, the Town of Paradise Valley issued 47,651 photo radar tickets, which accounted for $2,195,989 in gross fine remits — with $606,726 provided to the state and county; $572,057 paid to Redflex Traffic Systems; and the “amount retained by the town” was $1,017,206, according to the results of a public records request.

Rep. Grantham contends the amount of money changing hands is what keeps photo radar going on Arizona streets and points to recent corruption charges by one local vendor as a red flag.

A 2013 investigation into misconduct by former executives of Redflex and city of Chicago officials resulted in arrests and significant civil fines.

Redflex, an Australian-based company with a U.S. subsidiary in Phoenix, faced scrutiny on existing and pending contracts for service from several local governments across the nation due to the ongoing bribery investigation in Chicago, which was originally reported by the Chicago Tribune in 2013.

Under the terms of the settlement, Redflex will pay the city of Chicago $20 million, with $10 million payable by the end of 2017 and the balance to be paid, in various annual installments by the end of 2023, unless extended by the terms of the agreement.

During that same time period, the Town of Paradise Valley entered into a new contract with RedFlex — the one in effect today — but did so only after Redflex officials made internal changes to personnel and operations in the wake of the scandal, Independent archives state.

“One roadblock is the powerful lobby that fights to protect photo radar because of the amount of money at stake for cities, towns and the companies they partner with,” Rep. Grantham said of the travails of American government.  “That roadblock combined with a few powerful politicians on their side who can prevent the bill from being heard at all through the committee assignment process has made it difficult to receive a fair hearing in the state senate.”

The city of Scottsdale uses both fixed and mobile photo radar devices to deter speeding motorists. (File photo)

Word on the street

Elected leaders in Scottsdale and Paradise Valley are steadfast in their assertion photo radar and all of the subsequent accoutrements are just another way to protect motorists and the residents of their respective communities.

Guy Phillips

“From my experience with transportation staff, they use photo radar as a deterrent to speeders,” said Scottsdale Councilman Guy Phillips in a Feb. 7 statement to the Independent.

“That’s why they are strategically located. Although there might be some cities who include the revenue from photo radar to help their General Fund it really isn’t the big money-maker some feel it is. The cost of administration eats up most the funds received by speeding tickets.”

Records show that over the last three fiscal years, Scottsdale has issued 143,026 photo radar tickets, which have generated a total of $20,754,715 in revenue. But only $3,843,054 was retained by the municipality’s General Fund with an additional $2,839,290 going to the city court enhancement fund.

Councilman Phillips says he believes photo radar makes streets safer and the city has gone as far as removing affixed locations where behavior modifications have occurred.

“I feel the safety far outweighs the negative feedback we receive,” he said, noting he often explains to residents the virtues of the program if the topic comes up. “I tell them it’s for the safety of fellow drivers and data has proven it has made intersections and certain dangerous areas safer. If you’re not speeding you have nothing to worry about.”

For the Town of Paradise Valley, photo radar is a staple of its limited government model, elected leaders contend.

“I think the Town of Paradise Valley has a near-model public safety technology program that includes several traffic law enforcement tools,” Paradise Valley Mayor Michael Collins said in a Feb. 8 statement to the Independent.

Michael Collins

“Our program is heavily skewed toward only those most distracted or dangerous drivers with a considerable amount of precautions and warnings for the rest of us. We set our photo radar trigger thresholds to near-felony speeding levels, we have long yellow lights, we provide considerable advance notice of locations using the technology, and we have reduced our fines and fees over the last few years.”

Mayor Collins contends Paradise Valley is always open to negotiations.

“Can we do better? Yes. Can we share our experiences with other cities and towns to develop a statewide policy? Sure,” he said of his point of view.

“Will the legislature do the right thing and give us the chance? Who knows. Would I be willing to lead such an effort if asked? You bet.”

Records show that over the last three fiscal years the Town of Paradise Valley has issued 124,385 photo radar tickets, which have generated a total of $7,247,816 in revenue, while $3,918,749 was retained by the municipality.

“The Paradise Valley Town Council does not look at photo radar as a profit center despite what critics charge,” he said.

“It is lumped in with other fees and fines issued. If profit motive is the concern, I would gladly lead an initiative where the use of public safety technology is required to be revenue neutral.

Meaning that no city or town would be allowed to profit from it. At the same time I would ask the state to reduce its mandatory fees and fines for traffic law violators, which account for the majority of the cost residents pay if they do get a ticket in Paradise Valley.”

Safety vs. privacy?

Scottsdale Vice Mayor Virginia Korte says she doesn’t believe photo radar to be a core government issue.

Virginia Korte

“The strategy regarding photo radar, and this is why I think it has superseded government interference, is some people believe that photo radar is a privacy issue,” she said in a Feb. 8 phone interview.

“I believe photo radar is all about providing safer streets for our visitors and the residents who drive — the data proves that.”

In 2016, Lee Engineering — an independent firm specializing in research and forensic traffic engineering — analyzed crash data from 2007 to 2013 at 13 intersections and six street segments in Scottsdale with photo enforcement and found that crashes were significantly reduced.

Lee Engineering analyzed up to five years of data from before and after photo enforcement was implemented. Noteworthy results from the study include:

  • At the 13 intersections with red light and speeding photo enforcement, overall crashes were reduced by 23 to 24 percent, and crashes related specifically to red-light running were reduced by 33 to 35 percent.
  • For the six road segments with speed photo enforcement, overall crashes were reduced by 37 percent.
  • At intersections with enforced left-turn movements, left-turn crashes were reduced by 63 percent.
  • Both enforced and control locations saw a reduction in crashes, likely due to a positive spillover effect on driver behavior in surrounding areas.
  • In 2007 red light and speed photo enforcement was implemented at southbound Scottsdale Road and Shea Boulevard, resulting in a 28 percent reduction in the average number of crashes per year.

Vice Mayor Korte says the details of a topic matter.

“When the number of vehicular crashes decrease in a 10-year study period and you have quality data, then you have a very compelling reason for photo radar because there is a human factor,” she said.

“This isn’t about raising money or invading privacy, this is about creating a safer place for us to drive.”

Paul Dembow

Paradise Valley Councilman Paul Dembow is more direct regarding his stance on the bill making it way through the legislative process at the Arizona capitol.

“Another situation of government overreach,” he said in a Feb. 7 statement of the Independent.

“If you ask any of our Arizona legislators how they feel about the federal government force-feeding their behavior at the state level, they have a very strong opinion. If you ask a Paradise Valley resident about any legislative mandates that affect them directly they have a strong opinion.

“I’m disappointed that it appears several legislators don’t understand our unique situation. We have two main roads through our town and we can’t pull folks over in traffic without creating a dangerous situation in our town.”

Councilman Dembow says photo radar is an effective tool for officers on patrol.

“We need this tool to keep our town as safe as possible,” he said. “We can’t pull cars over during rush hour without creating a safety issue for our officers and those that are pulled over. Photo radar has been a key to the traffic safety in our town.”

Councilman Dembow agrees with Vice Mayor Korte’s sentiment that photo radar makes traveling along Valley streets and roads a safer experience.

“Based on traffic and ticketing trends, I have basis to believe that people slow down in Paradise Valley,” he said.

“There will always be the exceptions to the norm in any town. There have been crimes in Paradise Valley, and bicycle and vehicle accidents that by all accounts were unavoidable and tragic accidents. But we do all we can to reduce the likelihood of avoidable accidents. I think photo radar can contribute to the prevention of avoidable accidents.”

A view of photo radar vehicles employed by the Town of Paradise Valley. (File photo)

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

You are encouraged to leave relevant comments but engaging in personal attacks, threats, online bullying or commercial spam will not be allowed. All comments should remain within the bounds of fair play and civility. (You can disagree with others courteously, without being disagreeable.) Feel free to express yourself but keep an open mind toward finding value in what others say. To report abuse or spam, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box.