Political Hay

Don’t Smile for the Camera

In Arizona and elsewhere, politicians are starting to get the picture that speed cameras are unpopular and ineffective.

By 1.14.09

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Traffic speed cameras are now used in 45 cities nationwide. Theoretically, bringing in revenue through speeding tickets instead of taxation while promoting public safety appears to be a win-win proposition. In reality, it just fuels more wasteful government spending.

In Arizona, speed camera revenues fund a new, optional, experimental government agency that only a few other states have tried, Clean Elections. Clean Elections provides public funding for politicians to run for office, and since it originated in 2000 has not resulted in "cleaner" elections. A 2003 study  (pdf) by the General Accounting Office (GAO) found no significant changes in Arizona and Maine, the two states that initially implemented it.  Other studies found little impact or even a negative effect (pdf) on lobbyist influence, incumbency, and the types of candidates who run for office.

Democratic Governor Janet Napolitano forced the implementation of speed cameras statewide promising to fix the budget, but Arizona still had the second worst budget deficit per capita in the nation last year (only California was worse). Speed cameras aren't profitable, studies have shown that government collects less than half of the amount of each ticket, and much of that is used up handling court appeals, since approximately 40% of those who receive tickets appeal them.

Government officials freely acknowledge that the purpose of speed cameras is not safety, but revenue generation. In Arizona, speed camera tickets do not add any "points" to a driver's record; hypothetically a speeder could get hundreds of tickets and continue driving without a blemish on his record. Speed cameras take police officers off the streets and put them somewhere else -- leaving more drunk drivers on the road. A flash from a speed camera is not going to stop a drunk driver, who is free to continue driving drunk. Results of studies are conflicting on whether speed cameras have actually reduced accidents.  

Speed cameras are less forgiving than police officers. In Arizona, the law defines speeding as driving at a speed that is above "reasonable and prudent" under the circumstances, and states that driving above the posted speed limit is only "prima facie" evidence that the speed is not reasonable and prudent; it is not decisive. This is why when a police officer pulls a driver over for speeding, there is discretion whether or not to give the driver a ticket. If it is a clear day, there is no one else on the road, and the road is straight and flat, a police officer will probably not give someone a ticket for driving 67 mph in a 55 mph zone. The camera allows no discretion.

Another problem with speed camera tickets is they fail to give people proper notice as required by law. The Arizona Court of Appeals has held that any speeding ticket that is not personally served is invalid. This has resulted in an exorbitant waste of money as speed camera companies hire process servers to serve ticketed drivers, who often avoid service of process, allowing them to avoid paying the ticket. The paperwork costs add up. Other drivers avoid paying tickets by simply returning them with a notation that they were not the driver, resulting in immediate dismissal of the ticket.

The Sixth Amendment's Confrontation Clause, which is also echoed in Arizona's Constitution, gives the accused the right to be confronted by witnesses against him. With speed cameras, the driver is never confronted by a police officer ticketing him. So far, local governments have skirted around constitutional protections by classifying speed camera tickets as civil, not criminal violations. Efforts to challenge the tickets based on constitutional grounds that appear to have a chance at succeeding are simply dismissed in favor of the driver, swept under the rug by local governments before they can be fully adjudicated.

Arizona State Treasurer Dean Martin has argued that speed cameras are unconstitutional, because they constitute a tax. Under Arizona's constitution, tax increases require 2/3 vote of the legislature. The vote authorizing speed cameras on state highways passed with only a simple majority.

Opposition is mounting to speed cameras. Vigilantes are destroying speed cameras worldwide and posting stickie notes over them. Texas has banned all speed cameras, even red light cameras, and seven other states have implemented various other laws against them. Red light cameras raise slightly different issues. There is a fundamental difference between speed cameras and red light cameras. Running a red light is a per se violation of the law -- it is always a violation of law. Whereas speeding is a subjective decision that requires the discretion of a police officer.

Arizona has certainly had enough of the "Janet Cams." Websites like StopCameraFraud.com and TheNewspaper.com are spearheading the opposition. A ballot initiative is being drafted that will ban all cameras in Arizona. Republican Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeau ran on a platform of eliminating speed cameras last fall and won. Incoming Republican Governor Jan Brewer summed it up well: "It's everywhere from Costco to going to church… 'get rid of that photo radar.' Everybody that I've spoken (with), other than two or three people, they don't like it."

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About the Author

Rachel Alexander is co-editor of IntellectualConservative.com