Few saying aloha to van cams fondly
By Mike Leidemann
Advertiser Transportation Writer
Everybody didn't like something about traffic cameras.
What went wrong?
Take your pick.
In the end it was a combination of all those people and things that doomed the van cams.
Gov. Ben Cayetano ordered an end to the program last week amid increasing signs that the courts and state Legislature were about to pull the plug anyway.
The program, which was launched in early December, had noble aims: use advances in technology to slow traffic, reduce accidents and save lives, and free police officers for other duties.
In just more than four months, however, it became possibly the most hated public policy initiative in Hawai'i history, almost uniformly disliked, even by those who thought it actually worked.
"Our goal was a good one: getting people to slow down," said Kazu Hayashida, who was state transportation director when the idea of using automated cameras to catch speeders and red-light runners first surfaced here in the mid-1990s. "Back then, people were screaming for help. People were dying in neighborhoods like Nu'uanu and Wai'anae, and they wanted us to slow the traffic."
Hayashida doesn't remember who first suggested bringing cameras to Hawai'i, but he's clear that things started to go wrong well before the first citation was issued.
In the original 1998 legislation authorizing a traffic camera program, county police officers were going to run the program, taking pictures that would clearly identify speeding drivers.
Both of those key elements were later changed, creating legal and political problems for the program that finally became law in 2000.
"In hindsight it would have been better to have the police do this," Hayashida said last week. "People would have been more accepting if they thought the cameras were just another tool for the police to use."
County police departments were eager to participate in the program until they realized they would be doing all the work and receiving none of the ticket revenue generated by the program, Hayashida said. When lawmakers made it clear they were unwilling to change a longtime policy of sending traffic fines to the state general fund, the police opposition eased.
Lawmakers also agreed to remove a requirement for photographing the driver after civil rights groups raised invasion of privacy objections, Hayashida said.
"Maybe people were afraid the picture would show you driving down the road with someone who wasn't your wife," he said.
Advertiser library photo
"Our goal was a good one: getting people to slow down," said Kazu Hayashida, former State Transportation director.
Advertiser library photo
Ultimately, that meant the program would have to rely on a legal presumption that the vehicle's registered owner was actually the same person who was driving. When a state judge ruled last week that the presumption could not be used in court, the program was doomed and prosecutors were forced to call off all pending van cam trials.
Long before that, however, the program was in trouble in the court of public opinion.
The laws setting up the program were passed almost unanimously and without much discussion, and little public interest or input was heard in the next two years while the state Transportation Department worked out details and awarded a $5 million contract to ACS, State and Local Solutions, to run the cameras.
When transportation officials went public with the program Nov. 27, it was like something snapped in the collective psyche of Hawai'i's driving public. Squeals of protest resounded throughout the state. The opposition made for strange bedfellows: The ACLU and conservative Republicans. Street racers and senior citizens. Loud-mouthed talk-show hosts and thoughtful letter-to-the-editor writers.
For weeks, there was little else discussed on the radio or in carports. Thousands of people who considered themselves safe drivers suddenly felt they were being targeted as criminals in the cross hairs of a laser beam and digital camera operated by a company "of bounty-hunters" that was getting paid $29.75 for every ticket.
The state was unprepared for the backlash the cameras unleashed.
"It seems like the state failed to do a lot of up front research, which more often than not is a fatal flaw when you bring a new product to the market," said Dana Alden, professor of marketing at the University of Hawai'i's School of Business Administration.
Even though national reports on traffic camera programs warned that "favorable public opinion and public acceptance have been named most often as the aspect that can make or break an automated enforcement program," and ACS officials offered a full range of help, the state did little on the public relations front before the program was launched.
"From a marketing perspective you structure a product to be most acceptable to the public," Alden said. "You do your research and you frame it so that people can see an advantage to what your selling. Certainly, the state didn't do that well enough."
By the time the speeding section of the program was up and running in early December, it was clear the program was going to have far-reaching effects.
In the first three days of operation, operators photographed 8,690 vehicles and found 2,651 (about 30 percent) of them speeding. By the end of December 106,585 vehicles were checked and 4,962 drivers received warnings. In January the state issued more than 3,500 tickets; by March the number had soared to nearly 10,000.
While not exactly self-sustaining, the program was clearly a success for the vendor, which billed the state for nearly $340,000 in the first three months of this year, fueling suspicions the program was more about making money than providing safety.
In addition, drivers complained that speed limits in Hawai'i are too low, the speed camera vans were causing others to drive dangerously slow and insurance rates were going to climb for thousands of drivers who received a ticket.
Nothing though appeared to anger Honolulu residents more than the state's refusal to divulge a threshold for receiving a ticket.
The Transportation Department said publicly at one point that all drivers going even 1 mph over the limit "were subject" to a citation, but insisted they did not have a zero tolerance program.
Officials said divulging the actual threshold, which turned out to be about 6 mph over the speed limit, would be encouraging all drivers to break the law.
To make things even worse, the state continued to issue citations for the 6 mph threshold even after state judges in February began dismissing all tickets for less than
10 mph over the limit, forcing thousands of people to take time and sometimes money to contest their citations in court.
Hundreds of people even paid their fines before learning that judges would have dismissed their cases.
"I'm not the type who wants to go hassle in court," said Josephine Verdadero of 'Ewa, who paid her fine for doing 62-mph in a 55-mph zone on H-1 Freeway. "I didn't know anything about fighting my ticket. The court just took my money and kept my ticket. If someone is really speeding, OK, tag 'em, but don't go after all the rest of us, too."
"Yeah, only six miles over kind of ridiculous," said Paul Funakura who got his first ticket for doing 56 mph in a 50-mph zone on H-1 Freeway. "I support the camera program, but they needed to be targeting the people who are really dangerous."
The transportation department did its best to respond to the complaints.
It ordered a review (still pending) of reasonable speed limits on state roadways, moved the camera vans out of obvious speed trap locations, stepped up community briefings on the program, announced publicly where the cameras would be placed, agreed to change how the vendors would be paid to a flat-fee and even suggested the police should take oversee the program (even though the state would still keep the fine money).
"Once things start unraveling, it's very difficult to save something that has a fatal product flaw," said Alden, the marketing expert.
Hayashida added, "By that point people were already dead set against it. It would have been better to discuss all these things earlier."
Politicians were quick to see which way the wind was blowing.
Some such as Reps. Bob Hogue, R-24th, (Kane'ohe, Kailua), Charles Djou, R-47th (Kahalu'u, Kane'ohe); and Kika Bukoski, R-10th (Upcountry Maui); and Sens. Colleen Hanabusa, D-21st (Barbers Point, Makaha) and Sam Slom, R-8th (Wai'alae Iki, Hawai'i Kai) were quick to see the fatal flaws in the program and were vocal in their opposition from Day 1.
Others like Senate Transportation Chairman Cal Kawamoto, D-19th (Waipahu, Pearl City) and House Transportation Chairman Joe Souki, D-8th (Waiehu, Ma'alaea, Napili) argued that the program's safety benefits outweighed the problems, which could be fixed with legislative changes, including allowing the cameras to take a picture of the driver and changing the way ACS was compensated.
Early in the legislative session, the Senate voted unanimously to repeal the program, while the House clung to hope the program could survive with changes.
Until last week, it appeared a compromise position could be hammered out in conference committees by the end of session that would save some aspects of the camera law.
Then the wheels came off.
With word circulating last week that Gov. Ben Cayetano would no longer veto a repeal and that District Judge Leslie Hayashi was about to throw out the linchpin of the law enabling prosecution of violators, it appeared the state legislators would be the last ones propping up the widely unpopular program.
They pushed up a vote to repeal the program, wanting to get their opposition on record before it became moot. Within a matter of hours, many House members reversed their earlier stances and voted to repeal the speeding van program as well as a red-light section of the law, which was never implemented.
"From the initial outrage at the start of the program to the last vote, the public's anger never faded on this issue," Hogue said. "Maybe the program really was well intentioned, but there were so many problems, such obvious flaws. The preponderance of evidence finally proved that the cameras had to go."
Reach Mike Leidemann at 525-5460 or firstname.lastname@example.org.