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Tucson’s traffic cams: Fractions of a second costing drivers hundreds

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Photo: Video by kgun9.com

Tucson’s traffic cams: Fractions of a second costing drivers hundreds

CREATED May 14, 2012
Reporter: Kevin Keen
 
TUCSON (KGUN9-TV) - Maybe you've been in this driver's dilemma: you're at an intersection and want to make a left-hand turn. The arrow's yellow but you go for it. Then, more quickly than expected, it turns red. Flash! Traffic cameras snap your picture because you were fractions of a second too late.
 
If you're like many 9 On Your Side viewers, you get a ticket in the mail and pay up. With such a small violation, some drivers wonder if that’s fair. Would an officer on the street have written the ticket? Many have strong opinions, and 9 On Your Side drove them to Tucson police.
 
Cathy Sproul was turning on River and Oracle when traffic cameras flashed. The Tucsonan got a ticket in the mail, stating she technically turned on red two-tenths of one second after the yellow arrow changed. That’s 0.2 seconds.
 
“I think that amount of time is absolutely ridiculous,” Sproul told 9 On Your Side. “No police officer would have been able to even detect it with the naked eye. We're splitting hairs here.”
 
Cathy's ticket cost her $280.
 
In another case, Rebecca Krell was turning right on a red light at Grant and Swan. She stopped before making her move, but says cameras spotted one of her tires past the stop line.
 
“I don't think it's a lot,” Krell said. “I think it's a foot. I don't think that's very much. I did stop. I did obey.”
 
Krell ponied up $220 for traffic school.
 
Over the years, dozens of drivers have told 9 On Your Side traffic cameras caught them tenths of a second too late or just a few feet in the wrong place.
 
“It's because there's an inherit unfairness in the way that they do it,” said Mark Spear, a private systems engineer who’s studied the cameras extensively.
 
Spear said the camera ticketing process is set up to maximize what he and others call "micro-violations."
 
Reporter Kevin Keen asked Spear, “Do you think officers would be ticketing someone to the same degree that the cameras ticket people?” “Absolutely not,” he answered. “My research has told me that they probably ticket ten times more than they would normally, if it had been a police officer.”
 
“A motorcycle police officer wouldn't have given me the ticket,” Sproul said about her case. “They look at the same stop line--not the wait line--but the stop line that I was looking at at the time and that most safe, prudent, conscientious drivers look at.”
 
9 On Your Side drove those concerns to the Tucson Police Department. Sgt. Timothy Beam said a sworn officer is involved with every ticket before it's issued and they try to be fair while promoting safety.
 
“We use our discretion, just as the officer on the street would be able to use their discretion on whether or not to issue a citation,” the traffic camera program supervisor said. He cited some circumstances officers consider: “How close the citation was, what was the time, how bad did they miss the red light, or how fast were they going, in some cases.”
 
Beam said violations of one-tenth of a second are automatically rejected. Beyond that depends on the circumstances, which the cameras record.
 
Still, “statute says you have to be within the intersection when the light turns red,” Beam said. “Point one seconds is a violation. Point two seconds is a violation.”
 
“The point three or the point two seconds that you missed the red light by, you have to include that yellow light,” Beam added. “That yellow light there is a warning” for drivers and an opportunity to stop, he said.
 
Some drivers, like Kristy Bayer, agree: a violation is a violation. Cameras caught her in the wrong and she received a ticket.
 
“It took for me to actually go to school--defensive driving--to actually learn the reason why they're here,” the Tucsonan explained. “The reason they're here is, honestly, just to make us safer.”
 
“They're not hidden somewhere,” Bayer added. “They're big posts with cameras attached to them. There are big lights that flash. I feel that people should be more cautious at those intersections, just as they would be seeing a police officer on the side of the road.”
 
Fair or unfair, many drivers now just avoid those intersections altogether and accept this reality, according to Sgt. Beam: “the bottom line is: the system is very efficient. The system is very good at what it does.”
 
TPD added the city made some adjustments in recent years to make the system fairer, like adding more yellow light time at intersections. The department said anyone is welcome to visit and see how the ticketing process works. You just have to call ahead.
 
Do Tucson's traffic cameras actually make you safer, as police claim? Check out 9 On Your Side's investigation from this spring.