The concept seems like a gold mine for police departments: Cameras catching speeders and red-light runners, so officers don’t have to. But in reality, photo safety programs lose money. At least for Arizona cities.
Everybody else involved does just fine. The state cashes in. Private vendors and process servers cash in. And insurance companies and defensive driving schools cash in.
But the six photo safety programs in the East Valley and Phoenix drained city coffers of nearly $1 million combined in fiscal 2004-05.
Outside Arizona, such losses are rare. Washington, D.C., scooped up almost $16 million last year from a photo safety program that blankets the city and works like a cash machine.
"Some states make a lot of money because all they photograph is the license plate, and it doesn’t matter whose car it is or who is driving it," said Phoenix police Lt. Wayne Lorch. "Here, we must photograph the driver, the plate and the violation."
Catching all three elements on film is tough, and Tempe officials will consider calling it quits during public hearings later this year. But other East Valley city leaders said they will continue forking over the money they feel is necessary to keep down the number of crashes.
Not everybody agrees, however, that photo radar and redlight camera systems reduce crashes.
"I just don’t believe it’s proven itself to increase safety," said attorney Susan Kayler of Scottsdale. "The only incentive that seems to be there is a monetary incentive."
CITIES SHOULDER BURDEN
Mesa police Lt. Ben Kulina disagreed.
Cameras photograph every red-light runner in Mesa, but Kulina said only about 40 percent of violators are actually cited because of Arizona’s strict court rules.
For example, if a woman is driving a car registered to her husband, then she won’t be cited because the photographed driver must match the gender of the vehicle owner for a ticket to be mailed.
Also, people who ignore mailed citations must be served in person within 120 days of the traffic violation. If a driver evades process servers, then the citation is dropped. Many violators also opt for defensive driving school — a program that doesn’t pull any money into the city.
Even if the driver does pay, the city sees little of the money after the state takes its share and the vendor takes close to half.
Scottsdale alone paid nearly $1 million in surcharges to the state in fiscal 2004-05.
The state uses the cash to bolster various funds, and only a small portion of the money returns to the cities in any format. Arizona Supreme Court spokeswoman Cari Gerchick said photo safety surcharges help the state fund its Clean Elections program, its DNA archiving of felons and the added prosecution fees that resulted from President Bill Clinton’s initiative to put more police officers on the street.
Phoenix ends up with only about $7 income on each ticket after it pays the vendor, the state and the court. When city staffing costs are taken into account, $7 is just not enough to make money or even break even.
In fact, Phoenix loses about $329,000 per year.
In Mesa, Kulina said only about 25 percent of photo safety citations result in a city profit. The program overall lost about $228,000 in fiscal 2004-05.
Things work differently in Washington, D.C., and many other cities outside Arizona.
"We pay our vendors a flat fee rather than a per citation fee because it prevents the incentive for the vendor to make as much money as possible," said Washington Police Department spokesman Kevin Morison.
But money flows into the program anyway due to a registered-owner liability law that allows Washington to hold vehicle owners responsible for a photo safety ticket no matter who was driving when the photo was taken. If the registered owner wasn’t driving, the only way he or she can avoid a fine is by turning in the actual driver.
Washington also does not bother with process servers. Drivers who ignore mailed tickets can see their fines doubled. If they still don’t pay, they won’t be allowed to renew their driver’s licenses in the city. Washington also has an edge on East Valley cities because the nation’s capital incurs no state surcharges.
An upside for Washington drivers is that photo safety tickets don’t cause points on driving records.
MEET THE VENDORS
Back in Arizona, two major vendors compete for photo safety revenue.
They own the equipment, process the evidence and print citations. And for each ticket paid in the East Valley, they receive a commission that averages about $65.
Mesa, Phoenix and Tempe use Dallas-based Affiliated Computer Services, and Chandler, Scottsdale and Paradise Valley use Scottsdale-based Redflex Traffic Systems.
Both companies are global players in photo safety, but how much profit they earn in Arizona is a secret. Affiliated Computer Services declined comment, and Redflex Traffic Systems did not return phone calls.
Washington pays Affiliated Computer Services a flat rate of $700,000 per month.
Other entities cashing in on photo safety include defensive driving schools. Motorists cited have the option of attending classes through two main companies: Arizona Traffic Schools and the National Safety Council.
Both companies receive $25 from the courts per student.
The National Safety Council has nonprofit status in Arizona similar to many charter schools, but people still make money. Federal tax filings show that Arizona chapter president John B. Keeler earned $88,999 in 2002 and $98,365 in 2001.
ALL ABOUT SAFETY
Despite the municipal deficits, many cities are quick to defend their programs.
Mesa reported a 15 percent decrease in collisions at intersections equipped with redlight cameras, and Chandler officials said they’ve seen a 42 percent decrease in injury accidents from 2001 to 2002.
Phoenix said its program cut fatalities caused by vehicles running red lights by 25 percent since its vendor installed cameras.
"The decline is citywide and not just at intersections," said Phoenix traffic engineer Kerry Wilcoxon. "I think people are more aware now than they were before that they have more of a chance of being caught."
Robert Bohm, an attorney and president of the Red Means Stop Coalition, said citations are simple to avoid if motorists don’t run red lights.
"I don’t care if it costs a lot of money," he said. "Anything we can do to make people abide by the law is a good thing."
But Eric Skrum, spokesman for the National Motorists Association in Waunakee, Wis., disagreed.
He acknowledged that T-bone collisions inside intersections decrease with red-light cameras, but he said rear-end collisions approaching intersections increase. He said many cities, including those in Arizona, actually give photo radar vendors a financial incentive to manipulate an increase in traffic violations.
"They make money for increasing violations," he said. "No vendors anywhere get paid for reducing red-light violations."
If cities cared about safety more than money, he said, they would fix the engineering flaws at intersections that cause violations — such as short yellow lights — rather than continuing to mail out tickets.
"This is not people doing this on purpose," he said. "This is people running red lights by fractions of seconds because of engineering flaws at the intersections."
Despite the high costs and occasional complaints, officials across the East Valley believe photo safety is a worthwhile endeavor.
Even Tempe, which could throw out its program entirely, supports the concept.
"They are expensive programs, contrary to what most people think," said Tempe police Sgt. Dan Masters. "They do not generate revenue nor support their operating costs, so whether they are to be continued or not will be a decision of the City Council."
The proposal will not reach the Tempe council for discussion until at least October or November, said Mayor Hugh Hallman, who also said the photo safety program has been effective for reducing speeds in important areas, such as school zones.
"If they have saved one life or helped to change someone’s otherwise irresponsible driving behavior, I don’t know if there is a price we or anyone else could put on that," Masters said.