July 21, 2002
By Reid Lusk
It looks as though the end may finally be near for Denvers embattled photo radar program. If stubborn, revenue-hungry city officials have their way, however, it is just the beginning of another fight that will ultimately result in the flawed program resuming operation again.
Recently the City of Denver indefinitely suspended its use of the controversial camera-equipped white vans designed to automatically snap photos of speeding drivers. The city decision came reluctantly after a ruling by Denver County Judge Mary Celeste that found Denvers system to be operating illegally. Since its inception in 1998, Denvers photo radar program has apparently violated city law by enlisting a private contractor, ACS State and Local Solutions, to prepare and mail fine notices to speed limit scofflaws. Celeste said Denver also broke state law by basing its payments to ACS on the volume of tickets generated.
A pending class-action lawsuit against ACS and the City of Denver claims the contractor and city each netted about $3 million from photo radar fines in 2000, with ACSs portion determined according to the total number of images taken. The plaintiffs are demanding that all fines paid under the program be returned with interest and the city be slapped with punitive damages for its misconduct. But you wont find Denver officials admitting wrongdoing and apologizing. Instead, the citys attorneys are quickly scrambling for a legal fix to get photo radar up and running again in short order.
Photo radar loyalists within the walls of municipal government are echoing the tired refrain, as they have for years, that use of the technology is primarily a “safety measure.” The claim that photo radar ever had anything to do with traffic safety now rings pathetically hollow in light of these troubling revelations of profiteering. The safety argument falls flat on its face when one demands concrete proof that the presence of the photo units actually increases anyones safety. Denvers response is that traffic slows down significantly in photo radar zones. But does this automatically equate to safer roadways?
Most drivers who unsuspectingly happen upon one of these white vans will instinctively hit their brakes, become distracted, and take their eyes off the road to focus on either the van or their speedometer. Compare that to a motorist exceeding an artificially low speed limit by 10 to 15 m.p.h. like every other vehicle in the vicinity but driving responsibly with the median flow of traffic. Assuming he or she doesnt have the added stress of photo radar to interfere with his or her driving, do we really have to speculate on which scenario is most likely to cause a problem?
An alternative effort to curb other unsafe behaviors, such as aggressive driving, tailgating and lane hogging, should be pursued more vigilantly by police officers whose sound judgment can never be replaced by any mechanical contraption.
Clearly there are a multitude of factors besides excessive speed contributing to unsafe roadways. Refocusing policy to target bad driving in general rather than just speed violations would best serve the public interest with regard to traffic safety.
But the citys plans and public interest apparently run contrary to one another because photo radar is a cash cow for municipal government. This is why Denver is desperately clinging to photo radar and grasping at straws to justify its use to an increasingly skeptical public.
Copyright 2002, Independence Institute
INDEPENDENCE INSTITUTE is a non-profit, non-partisan Colorado think tank. It is governed by a statewide board of trustees and holds a 501(c)(3) tax exemption from the IRS. Its public policy research focuses on economic growth, education reform, local government effectiveness, and Constitutional rights.
JON CALDARA is President of the Institute.
REID LUSK is a volunteer researcher and writer for the Independence Institute.
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