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Arizona: History Underscores Unpopularity of Photo Radar
Arizona community voted 2-1 against photo radar in 1991, the only ballot test of voter sentiment in the state.

Voting photo by theocean/flickr
As Arizona lawmakers move closer to approval of legislation that would ban the use of photo radar on state highways, the private companies that operate automated ticketing programs are taking the offensive. Last week, American Traffic Solutions (ATS) commissioned Public Opinion Strategies to poll 500 Arizona voters and generate a survey of the public's attitude toward photo radar. The company found 63 percent of those selected for interview supported the use of speed cameras on freeways.

If Arizona's political history serves as a guide, however, one may find that this support does not materialize at the ballot box. Eighteen years ago, the group Citizens Against Speed Traps formed in Peoria to battle a then-new program that mailed automated speeding tickets on the streets of the Phoenix suburb. The group succeeded in gathering enough signatures on a petition that, less than a year after the cameras were first activated, voters were given the choice of whether to accept or reject photo radar. Fast forward to the present where the group sprung up from the Phoenix suburbs to circulate a petition seeking a public vote to ban speed cameras, this time on a statewide basis, less than a year after the devices were installed on freeways throughout Arizona. On March 19, 1991, the claims of Peoria officials that the program was popular turned out to be unfounded -- photo ticketing lost in the referendum by a two-to-one margin.

"It was the worst boondoggle the city ever went into," Peoria Police Lieutenant Jim Flonacher told the Anchorage Daily News in 1996. "Our citizens were literally up in arms. We were expecting Bastille Day at any moment."

Flonacher admitted to the paper that despite the claims made at the time, the devices did nothing to cut accidents in Peoria. Traffic Monitoring Technologies Southwest (TMT), which is now American Traffic Solutions (ATS), kept a significant percentage of each dollar it collected from the automated ticketing program. It lobbied hard to save Peoria's cameras through the group People for Community Safety. This lobbying effort fell flat after photo radar opponents obtained correspondence between the camera company and Peoria officials regarding the city's decision to place the public safety systems on quiet residential streets and school zones.

"This device, when relegated to roadways with only six to eight vehicles per hour, is a clear misuse of the TMT photo radar system," TMT President James Tuton wrote in a January 9, 1991 letter to Peoria City Attorney Steve Kemp. "It is no longer being deployed in this way and clearly (we) never anticipated that the unit would be used exclusively on residential roadways where it is incapable of financially supporting the program."

Tuton, currently the CEO of ATS, also complained that the city was using signs to give motorists advanced warning that speed cameras were in use.

"This is ridiculous," Tuton wrote. "Warning for what? Is this law enforcement or some kind of joke?"

The rejection of photo radar by voters in Peoria was soon followed by votes to remove cameras in Batavia, Illinois and Anchorage, Alaska. Last year, Cincinnati, Ohio voted to reject red light cameras and in a 2006 referendum on speed cameras, Steubenville, Ohio voted three-to-one against. If photo radar has never won in a public referendum, one might ask why the ATS polling data suggest public support for the program.

"We do more than simply monitor public opinion," the Public Opinion Strategies website explains. "We develop messages that defend our client's interests while impacting complex public policy issues."

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