PHOENIX – Arizonans drive long distances on their highways, and they like to do it fast.

But since the Grand Canyon State began enforcing speed limits with roadside cameras, motorists have been raging against the machines: They have blocked out the lenses with Post-it notes or Silly String. During the Christmas holidays, they covered the cameras with boxes, complete with wrapping paper. One dissenting citizen went after a camera with a pickax.

Arizona is the only state to implement “photo enforcement,” as it’s known, on major highways and is one of 12 states and 52 communities, plus the District of Columbia, with speed cameras, according to the nonprofit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

The cameras, paired with radar devices, photograph vehicles exceeding the speed limit by 11 mph or more. A notice of violation — for $181.50 — is then sent to the address of the vehicle’s registered owner.

Initially, the cameras were thought of as a revenue generator, expected to bring in more than $90 million in the first fiscal year of operation.

But from October 2008, when the program began, to October 2009, the cameras generated about $19 million for the state’s cash-strapped general fund, according to a report on photo radar released by the Arizona Office of the Auditor General last month.

As of September, only 38 percent of issued violations were paid, the report said.

This doesn’t mean the program lacks defenders. The number of fatal collisions investigated on state highways in 2009 was the lowest in 15 years, a figure that Lt. Jeff King of the Arizona Department of Public Safety attributes to tough drunken-driving laws and photo enforcement.

“We believe the cameras should stay up,” said King, who is the district commander for the program.

And ironically, critics say, the program was designed to encourage people to pay the fine and not fight their violations: No points are added to an offender’s license, and it doesn’t affect insurance.

That hasn’t stopped people from wanting their day in court. About half of the total violations issued are still pending because people have ignored the tickets or have requested hearings to challenge them, according to the state Department of Public Safety.

Among the dissenters fighting photo enforcement are members of a citizens group, the Arizona Citizens Against Photo Radar.

In Maricopa County — where 92 percent of Arizona’s violations occur — volunteers have been on the streets for about a year, gathering signatures for a 2010 ballot initiative to remove the cameras. On a December afternoon, Shawn Dow, chairman of the group, and two volunteers gathered signatures at an Arizona State University basketball game.

As ASU fans in maroon and yellow shuffled into the game, a mother with children in a Toyota Prius gave an opposing view as she drove past. “Photo radar keeps people alive with kids, woo-hoo!” she yelled.

Many people, however, were eager to sign the petition. “It’s a fraud,” said Jose Jimenez of West Phoenix. “It’s a big scam.”

Another dissenter is John Keegan, a judge for the Arrowhead Justice Court, who has called the cameras a constitutional violation. He rejects every photo radar ticket that comes before him. So far, Keegan says, he’s dismissed more than 7,000 violations, worth more than $1 million.


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