Jan. 31, 2008 -- American drivers may be speeding, but states are finding ways to make sure they get caught.
Controversial as they are, speed cameras are now employed in 37 communities in 12 states and the District of Columbia.
A new report by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety looks at the effect of speed camera enforcement in Scottsdale, Ariz. Before the cameras began snapping photos of speeding drivers, 15 percent were driving 10 mph over the limit. After the cameras were set up, that number dropped to less than 2 percent.
In Montgomery County, Md., the number of speeding drivers dropped by a whopping 70 percent.
"The goal with these programs is not to write a lot of tickets, it's to reduce speeding," says Anne McCartt, a senior vice president for research for the Insurance Institute. "And they're proving to be highly effective in doing just that."
Scottsdale, the first city to use the cameras on a major highway, implemented the nine-month pilot program in early 2006. The institute's study found that average speeds declined to 63 mph in a 65 mph posted speed limit zone, down from the 70 mph before the program started. When the pilot ended, traffic speeds increased. Average speeds shot back up to 69 mph in a 65 mph area, and 12 percent of drivers were going faster than 75 mph.
"When the cameras were turned off, there was a terrific up-tick in the number of speeders," said Scottsdale Mayor Mary Manross. "We kept the sensors in the pavement so we could just see if there was a difference, and there was -- about a tenfold increase in ... speeding, serious speeding."
Here's how it worked in Scottsdale: The six cameras set up on Loop 101 snapped a photo of the offending vehicle, and the city mailed it to the car's registered owner with the date, time, location and vehicle's speed.
"As soon as our demonstration program launched, the results were dramatic," said Mayor Manross. "Our program clearly worked."
Public opinion polls indicated that residents supported the program. After Scottsdale's brief success, Gov. Janet Napolitano directed the Arizona Department of Transportation to create a statewide program of photo enforcement. Permanent speed-camera enforcement began in February 2007.
Across the country in Montgomery County, speed-camera enforcement has been used in residential areas and school zones with speed limits under 35 mph.
"You only have to get one of these citations to really sort of get your attention," said Montgomery County Police Chief J. Thomas Manger. "I think it is having an effect on driver safety throughout the county.
"We get letters and calls from home owner's associations and people all over this county, asking please, please, please set up on my street," he said.
Critics contend the cameras are not always accurate. Just this week the city of Scottsdale said it would dismiss nearly 600 tickets because of a malfunction in the equipment.
Opponents claim the primary reason for the cameras is revenue for government. Manger denies this. "I would love for this program to end up not making any money at all because people are driving the speed limit," he said.
Then there's the issue of how effective the cameras are over the long term. Some drivers say once they know where the cameras are, they simply slow down for the radar, then speed up again once they are out of range.
But that wasn't the case on Scottsdale's Loop 101, the Insurance Institute found. Although the cameras were set up on an 8-mile stretch, speeds 25 miles away from the cameras also declined, with drivers associating all of Loop 101 with cameras.
The speed-enforcement cameras in Scottsdale also reduced nonrush hour accidents by 54 percent, according to a University of Arizona study.
Those who support the cameras say it's all about saving lives. "More than a thousand Americans die each month in speeding-related crashes," says the Institute's McCartt. "There's a direct tradeoff between speed and safety. In a sense, we're trading minutes for lives."