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Phoenix-Area Photo Enforcement Cameras Going Back On, But Do They Work?

Published: Friday, May 20, 2016 - 3:39pm
Updated: Monday, May 23, 2016 - 8:59am
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Sky Schaudt/KJZZ
A photo enforcement camera in north Phoenix.

If you’ve sped by a deactivated speed camera in the last few months, the free ride is over. Photo enforcement cameras are turning back on across the Valley after many were suspended for the last two months. 

Some cities had to turn off their red light and speed cameras after state Attorney General Mark Brnovich issued an opinion in March saying photo enforcement contractors have to be licensed as private investigators under state law. Now, they’re ready to operate. 

The Phoenix Police Department announced their cameras went back on May 18, now that photo enforcement vendor Redflex is in compliance with the Attorney General’s decision. Scottsdale’s cameras restarted last week, after American Traffic Solutions completed the process of getting a private investigator license. 

Chandler police said they were in the process of switching vendors when the attorney general’s ruling came down and had planned some down time in between the vendor switch. Citations will start being issued in Chandler in June after they calibrate their cameras.

Fines for a speeding ticket in Scottsdale start at $258. A red-light ticket costs $306, according to the Scottsdale Police Department.

Since traffic cameras there were turned on May 13, cameras have captured 2,075 violations, according to Scottsdale police. But, not every violation turns into a citation. Scottsdale police said staff will review the violations and issue citations as appropriate. 

In Phoenix, when the camera flashes, the violations are reviewed by Redflex, the company contracted to operate the photo enforcement program there, and then a police officer approves or declines the violation, according to the Phoenix Police Department. 

Nobody likes being caught speeding and getting a ticket, but the big question is: do these cameras work? 

“It is almost evenly divided in both opinion and factual conclusions about the effectiveness and the fairness of red light cameras,” said Michael Scott, clinical professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State University and the director of the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing.  

He looks at the body of research on law enforcement issues like photo enforcement so he can help police departments make decisions about it.

The goal of these programs is to reduce accidents and, overall, they help do that, Scott said.

“The analyses of many studies that have been done generally conclude that they do tend to have a positive effect in reducing vehicle crashes at intersections, especially the crashes that are most likely to get people killed and seriously injured,” said Scott.

And, when it comes to speed enforcement cameras, he said the evidence is a little stronger that they help prevent crashes.  

But, there is some offset. Scott said these cameras also tend to slightly increase the number of rear-end crashes, as people stop to avoid getting flashed. 

The reason they work, he said, is because they are a deterrent. 

“They’ll just tend to be a little more cautious, if for no other reason than to avoid getting that ticket,” he said.

Beyond effectiveness, Scott said there’s a whole other side to this issue: fairness.

“There are a whole separate set of questions about whether this is a fair way for police to go about preventing crashes,” he said. 

Scott said there are a few different reasons that come up when talking about the fairness of these cameras. First, there’s a question of whether it’s fair to ticket the owner of a car when it’s often not that person who was driving it when the camera caught them.

“It’s sort of like with a parking ticket,” he said. “We seldom know who parked the car there, all we know is that it’s parked illegally and the owner of the car gets a ticket.”

Then, there’s always a question of money.

“Who gets that money and for what purpose?” he asked. “Some citizens just find it fundamentally unfair that lots of money would be raised essentially depending on people breaking the law.”

But, most of all, Scott said there’s a sense of ‘big brother’ about this that a lot of people just don’t like.  Most people have been pulled over by a police officer for speeding and the officer gives them a warning.

“That’s something that was kind of built into the way that we expect that our police and our government operate,” he said. “Sometimes we just catch a break. And that’s part of, I think, what frustrates people about cameras. They’re not very sympathetic.”

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