Arizona Debates Red-Light Cameras: Tools That Save Lives or 'Police-State Tactics'?

A speed/red-light camera in Scottsdale.EXPAND
A speed/red-light camera in Scottsdale.
Ray Stern

A bill banning red-light photo-enforcement cameras throughout Arizona is heading to the state Senate after a debate framed as greedy, oppressive government versus a lifesaving tool backed by science and local control.

Last week, the Arizona House of Representatives forwarded the measure, HB 2525, on a 32-28 floor vote, prompting an outcry from traffic-safety advocates who said the cameras save lives.

The issue has pitted politicians like state Representative Travis Grantham against mothers like Barbara Hoffman.

Supporters such as Grantham of Gilbert call photo-enforcement cameras a modern “tyranny” and a “police state tactic.”

Grantham told his colleagues the ban was necessary because automated traffic enforcement violated basic constitutional protections ensuring people face their accusers.

He and other Republican lawmakers said cameras were little more than a naked attempt for cities to squeeze revenue.

Hoffman comes at the bill from a different perspective.

She is the executive director of Red Means Stop Traffic Safety Alliance, an Arizona nonprofit founded by people like herself. Her 14-year old son was killed in 2004 in Mesa by a red-light runner.

“We know firsthand red-light running is often a deadly epidemic, and indisputable data demonstrates Arizona’s traffic-safety camera program reduces red-light running, crashes, and save lives,” Hoffman said in a statement.

Arizona Public Health Association executive director Will Humble said the science supporting the cameras is unequivocal.

"The data is clear that photo enforcement saves lives and prevents injuries. That's why photo enforcement should remain an option for local policy makers," Humble said.

West Phoenix Representative Richard Andrade, a Democrat, noted a 48 percent drop in accidents and a 57 percent drop in injury accidents at key intersections since 2011, when the city installed cameras there.

One, Andrade said, was at 35th Avenue and McDowell Road near a school and the site of kids being killed by light-runners.

Arizona has long been plagued by high numbers of red-light accidents and deaths, but also been mired in controversy over photo enforcement just as long

The Arizona Department of Public Safety first hired a firm to snap highway speeders in 2007, and stood up a photo-enforcement squad a year later. But in the face of withering criticism, the contract lapsed in 2010.

In 2012 the Legislature repealed DPS’s authority to manage photo enforcement.

But it continued, controversially, in some cities. In some places, voters forced City Hall to scrub the cameras; in others, municipal photo enforcement continued or expanded on the streets.

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Others urging a no vote in the senate include Arizona SADD, Coalition of Arizona Bicyclists, Arizona Chamber of Commerce, and Arizona League of Cities and Towns.

They echoed some of the floor debate in citing sharp drops in crashes and injuries at intersections where cameras were mounted and even sharper increases in violations after some were pulled out.

In Mesa, Phoenix, and Paradise Valley, crash rates fell by between 45 and 55 percent, according to published and municipal reports.

In Star Valley, speeding violations shot up 256 percent after cameras were removed, and similar increases were logged in El Mirage with all types of violations after the state banned cameras on U.S. 60, advocates reported.

The Senate is certain to revisit the arguments heard in the lower chamber.

Andrade led the safety and local control arguments for cameras.

“If Scottsdale doesn’t want them, the let Scottsdale make that decision," he said. "But don’t make a decision for the city of Phoenix, where it’s saving lives.”

Joining him to decry what he said was hypocrisy was Representative Reginald Bolding, a Democrat from Laveen.

“We can’t stand here on one end and say that we are about law and order in this country and that we want to make sure we have safe communities, and on the other end say it’s inconvenient for us to be caught breaking the law,” Boulding said.

“How hypocritical does that sound?”

But there was plenty of passion from bill supporters, too.

Grantham listed his reasons for running the bill. He cited what he said was a violation of the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which ensures a fair trial for the accused, and raw greed.

He described accounts of cities deliberately speeding up the yellow-light cycle to garner more citations, and pointed and said he was troubled by an Australian company coming in and “setting up shop.”

He was referring to Redflex Traffic Systems, which has the lion’s share of the municipal contracts for photo cameras. He also pointed that one executive of such a company went to prison on bribery charges. He didn’t name her, but he was referring to Redflex CEO Karen Finley, of Cave Creek, who in 2015 pleaded guilty to bribery charges in an Ohio federal case.

“My problem is breaking the law to catch people breaking the law,” Grantham said.

He was unmoved by statistical arguments, saying that one can find data to support anything, including that Hillary Clinton is president.

Perhaps the most colorful argument in support of the bill came from Representative David Cook, a Republican from Globe.

“All these cameras do is they continue to feed these municipalities and their habits,” he said. “We should be putting more police on the street. Police officers should be out there, and not a camera.”

He decried how city police budgets are being slashed and ignored opponents’ arguments that officers have more pressing matters than sitting on a corner waiting for traffic violators. From this, he built his tyranny of technology thesis.

“By passing this bill, you’re telling the municipalities, they’re not going to be Big Brother, the 1986 book.”

The book, a literary classic by George Orwell, is named Nineteen Eighty-Four.


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