Got a surprise in the mail this past week.
It was a letter from the Pima County sheriff in Tucson, Ariz.
He was charging me with speeding — going 60 in a 45-mph zone — on a four-lane highway somewhere between Tucson and Phoenix the night of Jan. 17.
My court date is the morning of March 23 in Pima County Consolidated Justice Court.
I’m looking at a $226.25 fine.
This has to be some kind of a mistake, I thought. I was in Naples on Jan. 17. I haven’t been to Arizona in more than a year.
The second page of the letter cleared up my confusion and made me think: If Collier County drivers have some gripes about red-light cameras and surprise tickets in the mail, wait until they hear about this.
Arizona, which is often cited as the first state to make use of red-light cameras, is now using cameras to catch speeders. The first few cameras were introduced in September 2008, according to an Associated Press story from earlier this month, and the Arizona Department of Public Safety has slowly added to the number.
There are now 76 cameras catching thousands of speeders a day.
The technology being used borders on the unbelievable.
The second page of the sheriff’s letter contained four, full-color digital photos.
One was a close-up of a rear bumper and a Florida license plate. Another shows the car passing a red Jeep Cherokee. A third was a crystal-clear portrait of the driver — my son, who is a recent graduate of the University of Arizona and has been working in Phoenix since Dec. 1.
He still drives a car registered to me. The fourth was a photo of the driver and the passenger. (He was with his new girlfriend. They both looked nice.)
How a camera can take such clear photos through the front windshield of a car traveling (allegedly) 60 mph on a pitch-black night is astounding.
Shortly after the letter was opened and the photos were examined, my son got a phone call. As suspected, he had no idea he’d been ticketed for speeding on Jan. 17.
A little research showed that he is not alone.
Nearly every large newspaper in Arizona — and many of the national newspapers — has published stories about the new speeding-detection cameras and how tens of thousands of drivers get a surprise ticket through the mail every month.
Arizona state officials say the cameras slow down drivers and reduce accidents while opponents argue they are intrusive and are more about making money than safety. Sound familiar?
In the first year, 700,000 speeding tickets were issued by mail and that number is expected to grow in 2010 now that more cameras are being used.
The speed-detection cameras have made Arizonians forget about their gripes over red-light cameras.
There’s been some vandalism. Cameras have been covered with boxes, sticky notes and Silly String. One driver even took a pickax to a camera that stood vigilant over a section of state highway.
Then, there’s Dave Vontesmar. A vehicle registered to him has been hit with 37 speeding tickets thanks to cameras in the Phoenix urban area. Vontesmar says it might be his vehicle, but he wasn’t driving. All 37 photos show a clear picture of the driver. It’s some fellow wearing a monkey mask.
State officials are not amused, but haven’t figured out how to proceed in the Vontesmar case.
There’s no indication that Collier County is contemplating expanding camera surveillance to include speeding as well as red-light infractions. But if they ever do, you might want to get the local concession on monkey masks.
As for my son, I’m ratting him out. Do the crime, you do the time.
Phil Lewis is editor of the Daily News. His e-mail address is email@example.com