Bring back speed cameras in the Phoenix area — the right way this time

Driving on metro Phoenix freeways has become a nightmare with so many drivers exceeding the speed limits by 20 miles per hour and more. In effect, the state has created a “fly free zone” on our freeways.

Joe Smyth

Joe Smyth

It is too dangerous for police to pull speeders over; doing so would likely cause more accidents and more deaths. Arizona’s experiment with speed cameras on the state’s freeways provides a great example of broken politics at its worst.

When the state used cameras to enforce speed limits on our freeways in 2009, traffic fatalities dropped by 32 percent compared to the average for three full years before the cameras were being used.  That’s 377 real lives that were saved during that one year.

In the four full years after the state’s speed cameras were removed, traffic fatalities are again on the increase, by an average of 12 per year.  However, the figures would be considerably worse if not for the fact that many of our local governments are still using speed cameras and red light cameras to save lives and make law enforcement safer and more efficient.

So what went wrong at the state level?

  • When the state first started using speed cameras in 2008, former Gov. Janet Napolitano saw it as a money grab.  She projected the cameras would produce $90 million in annual revenues for the state.  The minimum fine was $181 (including a 10 percent surcharge for “clean elections”, another of the former governor’s pet projects).  But only 38 percent of those cited actually paid the fine, and the state’s windfall was only $37 million instead of $90 million.
  •  Why were only 38 percent of the tickets paid?  Because the law Napolitano rushed through the legislature allowed drivers to essentially ignore the citation (such as, for example, denying that they are the driver in the citation photo).
  • After getting one ticket, the vast majority of violators drove more slowly to avoid a second ticket — at least around the fixed locations of the speed cameras.
  •  Because of these political errors, citizens were understandably upset.  The state’s experiment with speed cameras ended in 2010 when then Gov. Jan Brewer simply allowed the program — and therefore the lives of some of our fellow citizens — to expire.

Why not learn lessons from our mistakes of the past, and bring back the speed cameras?  This time, Gov. Doug Ducey and Arizona’s legislators and could do it the right way by following these principles:

1. The purpose of the program should be public safety.  Camera enforcement should pay for itself, but shouldn’t be seen as yet another way to increase state revenues.  The fine for a first offense should be reasonable.  Repeat offenders can be made to feel the pain via higher fines, or even having their vehicle impounded.

2. Like most other states, Arizona should hold the registered owner of the vehicle responsible for speed camera violations (just like auto insurance).  This would cause the vehicle owner to be more careful about who drives the vehicle.

3.  Obvious cameras in fixed locations simply encourage some commuters to slow down for the cameras but speed up between camera locations.   Better technical solutions are available, such mobile units and GPS timing devices.

Some of our more libertarian friends will decry a return to speed cameras as too much government interference in their lives.  But even libertarians believe in stop signs and speed limits, right?  Yes, government often tries to do too much and doesn’t do it well. But speed limits should be a basic function of government, and one that we should enforce as efficiently as possible.

To Arizona’s scofflaw speeders, the solution is simple:  If you don’t speed, you won’t get a speeding ticket.  Slow down and obey the law.  You’ll be less likely to kill somebody, including yourself.

Editor’s note: Mr. Smyth is chairman of Independent Newsmedia Inc. USA, but the opinions expressed here are strictly his own. 

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