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Ready for your in-car close-up?

Times Staff Writer

Beverly Hills Police Lt. Michael Hines knows the sinking feeling officers get when they pull someone over for speeding only to see other drivers go roaring past. He can’t be everywhere at once.

The dozen traffic officers who patrol this wealthy burg say they’ve watched it happen for years. While they work the city’s busier streets, motorists are short-cutting on quiet residential roads, often tearing along in what Hines calls “wonderfully high-performance vehicles.”

Scottsdale, Ariz., had a similar problem in 1997. But officials there found a technological solution: cameras like the ones that capture the faces and license plates of red-light violators. When radar-activated cameras were placed along a few roadways, city officials said, average speeds dropped 9 mph.

Since then, cameras have also been installed along a freeway through the city, becoming so effective that Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano wants to put more on freeways statewide, not just to catch speeders -- the death rate on Arizona highways is nearly twice that of California -- but also to generate ticket revenue to narrow a $1-billion state budget gap.

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The proposal has been controversial in Arizona. But in Beverly Hills, some residents and officials say the use of cameras would grab the attention of motorists.

“On a one-block residential street, for someone to get up to 40 or 50 mph is a big deal,” said Alan Kaye, president of the Beverly Hills Residents Assn. Cameras would change people’s habits, he added, and “do it real quick.”

Beverly Hills officials have been trying to get a camera system since 2006, only to find little traction in the Legislature. It’s one thing to use cameras to catch drivers who run red lights -- an obvious danger. But deploying them to nab speeders has been a touchier issue.

Besides Big Brother concerns, pop culture has long celebrated Americans who goose the gas, a la “Smokey and the Bandit” or Sammy Hagar’s anthem “I Can’t Drive 55.” And speeding is the rule, not the exception, on many roads in Southern California. In 2007, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that the average speed on freeways outside Los Angeles was 78 mph, well above the 70 mph limit.

But Beverly Hills officials are pushing again this year for a bill sponsored by State Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica), SB-1325{ED06AAC3-8E06-4148-A166-526DCBFEEA9A}&DE={509A08DF-D11B-4 A3F-A8AC-6B02B89B1323}.

Officials see signs that opposition has begun to soften since a similar bill died in committee in 2006. Along with Arizona, Illinois, Maryland, Oregon and Washington have approved limited use of speed cameras, and public safety officials are either more open to the idea or support it outright.

In January, the Governors Highway Safety Assn., a nonprofit that represents state highway officials nationwide, called for a vast increase in the use of cameras, saying budget cuts had left police agencies with too few officers to do anything about speeders. About 13,000 speeding-related deaths occur each year, about a third of all traffic fatalities, the association said.

Kuehl’s bill would create a pilot program allowing a marked mobile unit to set up only in school or residential neighborhoods where the speed limit is 25 mph or less. Signs would be posted to warn drivers that cameras were present, Hines said, and officers would oversee the cameras and inspect the photos before mailing them to vehicle owners with citations attached.

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“This is not a technology searching for a problem to solve,” said Richard Retting, a senior traffic engineer for the Arlington, Va.-based Insurance Institute. “It frees up police to do what technology can’t do. Drivers respond dramatically to the threat of enforcement. . . . Police chiefs recognize it’s a force multiplier.”

For a visitor from Southern California, it’s easy to see why speeding would be common in Scottsdale, a wealthy tourist destination often touted as “The Beverly Hills of the Desert.” The city -- like much of the surrounding Phoenix metropolitan area -- is a blend of palmy flatlands and red rock mountains. It also has straight, long and wide boulevards offering plenty of opportunities to reach freeway-like speeds.

When the Loop 101 freeway fully opened in 2002, officials say, residents who had already been complaining about speeding found that conditions quickly got worse. So, in 2006, the city installed six stationary cameras on a stretch of the six-lane road that slices through town. Speeds of at least 100 mph were recorded on 27 of the first 31 days the cameras were turned on.

In a preliminary study, Arizona State University researchers found that average speeds dropped 9.4 mph and injury crashes fell 40% in the first 10 months the cameras were running. (The number of rear-end collisions increased, probably because of drivers braking suddenly to avoid getting tickets.)

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“I commute on the freeway, and almost overnight the environment on that road changed,” city spokesman Mike Phillips said during a recent interview at City Hall.

In perhaps the cameras’ most widely known moment, they caught a man suspected of going 147 mph in a Hyundai Sonata early on a Sunday morning; he said he was late for work.

The ticket got so much attention that Car and Driver magazine tried to determine if a Sonata could go that fast and found that it was plausible under ideal conditions. The suspect paid a $1,239 fine and spent a week in jail.

The Arizona Highway Patrol last year began using two custom-equipped sport utility vehicles that belong to -- and are staffed by -- Australian-based Redflex Traffic Systems Inc. The SUVs, with two cameras each, are deployed across the state.

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Napolitano’s proposal to add more cameras has been controversial. Several legislators want to take the issue to voters in November.

Even some law enforcement officials chafe at the suggestion that the cameras, supposedly born of concerns about road safety, would be given a money-making role. Scottsdale turned a $2.3-million profit from its cameras since the program began in 2006 through February of this year.

Sean Tierney, a Tempe resident, was sufficiently peeved after he was ticketed that he ordered a license plate consisting of zeros and the letters ‘O’ and ‘D’ so it would be difficult for a distant camera to clearly read his license number.

Tierney got rid of the plate after a month, but he believes the cameras are used in a way that belies their mission to make roads safer.

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“I’m vehemently opposed to it,” he said. “They’ll hide the [camera] vans in bushes and then claim it’s a speed deterrent, and that’s completely inconsistent. A driver won’t see them until they’re five feet away.”

Others whose cars have been captured in photos complain of being sent tickets even though someone else was driving. They say the system tries to turn them into snitches, instructing that they tell police who was really behind the wheel. But the law, in fact, doesn’t require owners to do so -- and if they don’t, the ticket is usually dismissed.

The only other California city to have recently experimented with speed cameras is San Jose, which had them on residential streets from 1998 to 2007. The City Council shut them down, however, because the program was a money loser and the city wasn’t certain that it was legal under state law -- although many residents asked for cameras to be put on their streets.

Calvin Chu, a San Jose resident, complained that the system lacked judgment. “If someone gives you a ticket, at least it’s a real, live human being and you can talk about it,” Chu said.

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Other critics have also seized on the technology.

“You can be convicted by this magical reading of a box and if it happens to be wrong, there’s nothing you can do about it,” said Richard Diamond, who publishes theNewspaper.com, a website devoted to railing against camera enforcement.

Diamond said that some lower speed limits are arbitrary and that many people who speed are just keeping up with traffic and driving safely for the conditions. Other experts have argued that slowing traffic overall would lead to safer roads.

“But getting that point across is not simple,” said Retting of the Insurance Institute. “So many people speed and don’t suffer consequences for it on a daily basis.”

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steve.hymon@latimes.com


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