In just one week, nearly 1,800 speeders triggered Star Valley's new Highway 260 photo enforcement cameras -- but so far, all that's costing them is the anxiety of tearing open a sternly worded warning.
But starting on March 1, anyone zipping over the sensors buried in the road will trip the cameras, which will trigger a ticket costing at least $187.
Drivers who exceed the 45-mile speed limit by 41 miles an hour will not only get a $510 ticket, but likely face criminal charges, according to Star Valley Traffic Enforcement Agent Dick Baranzini.
The flood of speeders between Jan. 31 and Feb 7 surprised town officials -- and could produce higher than anticipated revenues.
The town will collect approximately $70 to $80 for each $187 ticket, with another $35 going to the company that runs the photo enforcement equipment and about $70 going to the state, said Baranzini.
Ironically, just as the town's long-sought system prepared to start issuing real citations, key state legislative committees moved to all but outlaw photo enforcement on state highways.
Gov. Janet Napolitano had proposed a major expansion of photo enforcement systems on state highways after cameras on Highway 101 in Scottsdale produced a flood of new revenue.
At one point, after Scottsdale installed cameras on the busy highway, the system generated more speeding tickets than the entire rest of the state.
The governor included $90 million in anticipated revenue from expanded photo enforcement in the deficit-plagued 2009 state budget and another $125 million in 2010.
Legislature may block photo radar
However, the Republican-dominated state Senate Transportation Committee this week adopted three measures that would effectively eliminate the photo enforcement systems on state highways, although cities could still install the systems on local streets.
Two of the measures would block new systems and refer the whole question to a November statewide vote. Another measure would require traffic studies before allowing any system and limit tickets to drivers going faster than 85 percent of the vehicles along that section of roadway.
Immediately, the ban could affect Scottsdale, Prescott Valley and Star Valley, which all have systems installed in state highways.
Many other cities are considering adopting the systems to slow traffic on busy highways passing through their territory.
The Arizona Department of Public Safety opposed the ban, citing a study showing that accidents and speeding have decreased significantly on the Loop 101 since the cameras were installed.
However, several lawmakers denounced the planned expansion of photo enforcement as more of a way to wring money out of taxpayers than as a traffic safety measure.
In the meantime, initial figures indicate that the new highway cameras could prove unexpectedly lucrative for Star Valley.
Before actually turning on the cameras, town officials had little real idea how many tickets the system might generate.
A radar-van set up on a Saturday last June quickly recorded 50 people traveling at the 56 miles an hour threshold for issuing a ticket, which, if extrapolated 24-hours a day, would have yielded 10,000 tickets a month. But no one expected that number to come even close.
7,000 speeders per month
However, a week of snapping pictures and issuing warnings during a season in which traffic volumes are relatively low suggests the system could easily capture 7,000 speeders per month.
Perhaps only a quarter of those speeding drivers will actually end up with a ticket, said Baranzini, a career police officer, who helped launch and run the Scottsdale photo enforcement system before becoming a consulting and helping Star Valley devise its system.
Even if the system takes pictures of 1,800 speeders a week, various factors will winnow out most of them before they actually pay the fines.
For instance, Baranzini estimated that several hundred drivers will dodge a ticket because of technical problems, such as a trailer hitch covering the license plate or a blurry image of the driver's face.
During the test run, out of the 1,692 photos of speeders, 238 dropped out for those technical reasons.
Next, the system will eliminate vehicles not owned by the drivers, like rental cars, corporate fleet cars and government-owned cars.
In addition, a system that automatically cross checks the license plate against the driver's license description of the registered owner will eliminate non-owner drivers, such as a car registered to a male but driven by a female. Baranzini estimated that this step will eliminate half of the potential tickets.
Finally, several hundred more tickets will drop out as a result of people simply ignoring the mailed-out notice.
The courts have ruled that since drivers don't sign a promise to appear at the time they receive the citation, the state can't actually enforce the ticket unless the driver acknowledges the offense or the notice is served in person by a process server.
The town will use a contract process server to deliver a notice to anyone who doesn't pay initially, with the $32-$100 cost of that service added to the ticket cost.
In the end, 1,700 photos of speeders in the first week would have generated only about 600 to 800 actual tickets.
Still, even 700 tickets a week would generate about $200,000 in fines every month for the town and a similar amount for the state, even after paying the company that maintains and manages the system.
However, it's also possible that drivers will adapt to the system and slow down, as they did on the Loop 101 after the cameras there generated a staggering initial volume of tickets.
One speeding driver on the 101 actually got six tickets in one sweep through the stretch of highway where the city had installed three cameras, since the driver turned around after passing through one stretch going north and triggered three more cameras on the southbound section.
In Star Valley, at least there's only one camera in each direction -- the location clearly heralded by a speed-limit sign, followed by two photo enforcement warning signs.
During the first week of the trial period, most of the 1,700 drivers who triggered the cameras were doing between 56 and 60. About 7 drivers a day were going 21 miles an hour over the posted, 45-mile-per-hour limit.
Only one driver in that week approached the 75-mile-an-hour speed that would have triggered not only a real ticket, but a criminal prosecution -- a driver clocked at 74 miles an hour.
"And he was blowing through there on a rainy, snowy day -- it really ticked me," said Baranzini.