Pargo Floors It

The feathered fiend asks: Is 101 a speed trap? And whose ugly girl-head is that?

By now, if you follow the news, you've no doubt heard of Lawrence R. Pargo, a.k.a. The Poor Kid Who Police Claim Was Driving a Hyundai at 147 Freaking Miles Per Hour. But for all you cave-dwellers out there, here's the recap: Scottsdale PD arrested Pargo, 26, in late May. His alleged crime? Why, only driving on the Loop 101 at nearly three times the speed limit. That was a new record for Snottsdale's freeway "photo enforcement" cams, which have been ticketing Loop 101 drivers since February.

The problem? Pargo was driving a 2006 Hyundai Sonata. And even bird brains like The Bird know that "Korean engineering" is not synonymous with "built for speed."

Indeed, Pargo's story, first reported in the Scottsdale Tribune, has since launched a tidal wave of speculation from car nuts and photo radar haters, most of it centered on the improbability of a sensible Hyundai coupe suddenly setting speed records.

The nuts and the radar-haters, this crazed canary must add, have some pretty good facts on their side. After all, the impartial information out there in car enthusiast circles makes it pretty clear that the Sonata isn't a muscle car. The auto-obsessed Web site www.jalopnik.com recommends it for "penny pinchers" and "golfing grandpas." The site even gives the same answer to the questions of a) why you should buy a Sonata, and b) why you shouldn't buy a Sonata: "Because it's so damn sensible, it hurts."

Indeed, independent reviews suggest that, even in its 2006 model, the Sonata isn't capable of making it to 147 mph. The Scottsdale Tribune talked to a car dealer who said it was impossible. Hyundai itself lists the Sonata's top speed at 137 miles an hour, and the Web site www.nctd.com, which test-drives new cars, only got the thing up to 130.

To The Bird, it's a bunch of clues that add up to one thing: Photo radar cams don't work.Yeah, maybe they can handle surface streets, but the highway's gotta be a different story, especially at high speeds. And if the cameras show that a Hyundai going 100 mph was actually going 147 mph, well, who's to say that your ticket for going 76 mph doesn't really mean you were going 74?

But this feathered fiend isn't one to make unsubstantiated allegations. (Not this week, anyway.) The idea that the cameras in use in Arizona aren't quite freeway-ready comes not from the imagination of this balmy budgie, but from someone who ought to know: Craig A. Roberts, Ph.D.

Roberts is both an engineer and a professor at Northern Arizona University and director of AZTrans, a.k.a. The Arizona Laboratory for Applied Transportation Research. At the behest of the Arizona Department of Transportation, Roberts' lab studied the freeway/camera issue.

AZTrans released its findings last October, in a 109-page report that Scottsdale, and everyone with the power to stop the cameras, has since been determined to downplay and ignore.

Roberts is on sabbatical and couldn't be reached for comment. (His research assistant, who now works for the city of Flagstaff, also didn't return calls.) But the report seems to speak for itself. Basically, Roberts concludes that, when it comes to cameras on the freeway, whether they'll actually work is a big fat mystery.

"A field trial will be needed to determine how any photo enforcement system equipment actually performs with the criteria set for this project," Roberts wrote. "In theory, the camera/sensors should technically perform in these conditions. However, in practice, the multi-lane, high-volume, high-speed freeway could present problems that would prove significant."

The Bird has to pause at that word: "Significant."

(And no, Mayor Mary Manross, ol' Dr. Roberts isn't talking revenue. He's talking problems.)

Dick Baranzini, one of the Scottsdale PD's two contract administrators, says that the city's vendor -- locally based RedFlex -- is constantly testing and retesting its machines. The city, he says, has no doubt they're working perfectly.

"We have never had any indication that the equipment is malfunctioning," Baranzini squawked. "If the cameras were malfunctioning in a certain area, there wouldn't be just one car [like the Sonata], there'd be a multitude of them."

Unfortunately, Baranzini didn't know the details of RedFlex's testing system. He deferred questions about that to a company spokesman, who didn't call back.

And so The Bird has no choice but to turn to the final conclusion of professor Roberts, who wrote, "Advancements are continually being made in photo enforcement systems and it is logical to predict that the ideal technical attributes identified in this research could be met by one or more vendors in the future.

"At this time, however, gaps exist between the stated capabilities of the current vendor systems and the ideal system characteristics needed for the Phoenix metro area freeways."

Once again, The Bird pauses. "Gaps?" Meaning Scottsdale's system isn't ideal? Meaning who knows whether Pargo was really driving 147 mph? And finally, meaning that The Bird is really hoping this Pargo guy has the bucks to get a lawyer good enough to blow this whole thing wide open.

Heads Up

Who says there's no decent public art in the Valley? Not The Bird. And especially not now that an unknown Tempe artist has taken to the streets -- or, more appropriately, the air -- with his own special brand of visual.

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