Editor's note: This story first appeared Sunday as an exclusive for our print readers.
In the 2½ years since Tucson started using photo radar, the city has issued 176,000 photo citations, costing drivers $9.5 million in fines.
But the program has been far from a financial bonanza - at least for the city.
In 2009, city government netted only about $200,000 after all the bills were paid. That's all that was left from $4.6 million in fines collected that year. And data collected by the Arizona Daily Star show both citations and revenue drop precipitously the longer the cameras are in place.
There is some mixed data, however, indicating the red-light light cameras and two mobile radar vans for speeders have modified some drivers' behavior in a positive way.
Accidents - particularly injury accidents - are significantly down at two of the four intersections that have operating red-light cameras.
While people are still having their share of fender benders, red-light cameras, in particular, have been shown to reduce the frequency of side-impact, or T-bone, crashes, one of the most dangerous types, said Lt. Lew Bentley, Tucson Police Department traffic division commander.
Citywide, total collisions fell 12 percent from 2008 to 2009. Fatal collisions and injury collisions dropped by 55 percent and 14 percent respectively during the same period and property damage collisions also dropped off about 12 percent.
The number of citations issued at each location shows that folks are changing the way they drive around the cameras, Bentley said.
"Each and every time we can look at the number of citations and, as time progresses, compare them," he said. "There's an overall drop of about 40 percent at each location."
For instance, he said, South Nogales Highway and East Valencia Road averaged about 1,700 citations per month when the cameras first went up. Now there are about 900 per month. North Oracle Road and West River Road dropped from 2,500 citations per month when the program started to about 1,000 in February. And the numbers have continued to drop this year, Bentley said.
City photo enforcement was never supposed to be about the money, officials say - and it's a good thing because the decline in tickets means fewer fines.
In 2008, the first year when all four red-light cameras were in operation for a part of the year, the city was bringing in more than $400,000 a month in gross revenues. By 2009, as drivers made the adjustment, that dropped to about $383,000 a month. This year, through mid-September, it's down to less than $150,000 a month.
Revenues could get a boost as the city is gearing up to add four more intersections. Cameras at East Grant and North Swan roads and East Speedway at North Kolb Road are already in place and waiting to be turned on. Two more will be going in soon at East Broadway and Craycroft Road and a fourth undetermined location.
But even if that means more tickets and fines, experience indicates it probably won't provide much of a patch for the city's ailing budget.
Where does the money go?
Right off the top, 45 percent goes to the Arizona Supreme Court. After that, American Traffic Solutions (ATS), the company that operates the cameras, gets its cut. TPD and city court get about 20 percent to pay workers who run the program and process tickets. The city general fund gets what's left.
In 2009, the only full year the cameras have been in operation, of $4.6 million collected, $2.1 million went to the Supreme Court, $1.5 million went to ATS and about $800,000 went to police and court salaries. That left $200,000 for the city's general fund.
For 2010, total revenues are down to $1.3 million through mid-September.
Safety benefits less clear
The city's first red-light camera was installed in November 2007. Three more were phased in over the spring of 2008. Once the cameras are in place and flashing, drivers have 30 days to get used to them before tickets are issued.
Since their inception, the cameras - both red-light cameras and speed vans - have issued 175,844 citations, court records show. Through mid-September this year, though, citations are down to just 15,852. Between 60 and 64 percent of the citations each year are for red-light violations.
The safety benefits are less than clear cut, although the early data point toward a reduction in accidents, or at least the severity of accidents, absent some anomaly that may offset the impact of the cameras.
That could be the case at East Valencia Road and South Nogales Highway, where collisions went up nearly 14 percent from 2007 to 2009 - from 22 in '07 to 25 in '09. By June there had been 10 collisions there this year. Not only are accidents up, but police report injury accidents are, too.
They speculate that may be because the location is on a prime route to the airport, and drivers may be less aware cameras are there. The other three cameras are installed at intersections where a higher percentage of drivers use those routes regularly. See map.
At East Grant and Tanque Verde roads and at East 22nd Street and South Wilmot Road, accidents and injury accidents are both down. River and Oracle, where the last of the four cameras went in, has not seen a significant change.
REVEnue expectations unmet
Besides the operating cost, the other reason photo-radar revenues haven't met early expectations is the city has to be able to identify and serve the driver. Tucson city courts dismissed almost 11 percent of photo enforcement citations in 2008 for being unable to serve the driver. In 2009, 14 percent were dismissed. So far this year about 8 percent of citations have been dismissed for this reason.
Not everyone loves red-light cameras. Shawn Dow, chairman of Arizona Citizens Against Photo Radar, tried to get a voter initiative on the November ballot that would ban the use of traffic cameras across the state. The attempt fizzled when the group was unable to collect enough signatures by the July deadline.
Dow disputes the idea that red-light cameras increase safety, and he says they violate both the U.S. and Arizona constitutions by curtailing due process and the right to face one's accuser in court. But the main thing, he says, is voters should have a chance to weigh in on the issue.
"We just want the residents to vote," Dow said. "Red-light cameras do not increase safety. They're putting people at risk and they're violating the constitution. Why?"
Contact reporter Clayton R. Norman at firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-4142