The white police vans, parked on the side of the street, might be enough of a giveaway. But then there is the sign that reads, “Notice: Traffic Laws Photo Enforced” — a warning to motorists that a radar trap lies about 500 feet ahead.
For the past eight years, the Tucson Police Department has used photo radar vans in its traffic safety program, an effort that also includes several cameras to catch drivers who speed or run red lights.
But the Tucson Police Department has been transparent about where the cameras and vans are posted. As vehicles approach, inevitably a two-step dance begins. Drivers slow down, then speed up again after they have safely passed.
The department lists the schedule for its two vans weeks in advance. Media outlets also publish the van locations.
Sgt. Eric Hickman, with the Police Department’s traffic division, said the goal of the photo radar vans and cameras was not to catch speeders but to deter them.
“We provide that information as a courtesy, and there is no legal obligation to do so,” Sergeant Hickman said. “This increased awareness by the motoring public will ideally cause drivers to be more aware of their speeds and in turn make the roads safer.”
As a van was parked by the Gertrude Cragin Performing Arts Magnet Elementary School in Tucson on Tuesday afternoon, approaching vehicles — many of them picking up children after dismissal — were doing their usual slow-fast rituals.
Joe Curcuru, who has lived in Tucson for eight years, had just picked up his 9-year-old daughter. He questioned the purpose of the vans.
“I just don’t see the point at all,” he said. “I’d rather have more policemen actually patrolling than a van that just snaps pictures of people.”
Joseph Toledo, who was walking near the van, said he regularly checked the newspaper to review where the radar vans would be each morning. He said he had not been caught speeding by a van and intended to keep it that way.
The traffic safety camera initiative began in 2007 after Tucson was ranked fourth in the nation by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety for traffic deaths related to red-light violations. Since the program began, the police have observed a sharp decrease in accidents at locations equipped with cameras.
The photo enforcement vans are deployed weekdays from 5 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. The vans change locations four times a day, alternating between busy intersections and public schools. The locations and assigned times can be changed without notice, depending on setup problems or locations that may require attention.
Despite schedules’ being posted in advance, not all drivers have evaded ticketing. The two vans generated 12,499 citations In 2014, according to the Police Department. Since 2007, the vans have generated 91,257 citations.
Driving from the Gertrude Cragin Elementary School, Isidra Barrios said she wondered whether the police vans were more of a distraction than a deterrent.
“People get scared,” she said. “Sometimes they pay more attention to the van than to what they are doing.”