State missteps blamed for traffic-camera anger
By Mike Leidemann
Advertiser Transportation Writer
The private company that developed Hawai'i's controversial traffic camera plan offered in its contract proposal to organize and run an extensive community relations campaign tailored to the state that would include everything from community meetings to television advertisements about the program.
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A photo van parked on the Pali Highway near the lookout turnoff monitors traffic in a 45-mph zone that slows to 35 mph going toward Kailua.
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"I think they made mistakes every step of the way," said Honolulu City Council chairman Jon Yoshimura, who wants the program scrapped or limited.
Although the cameras have noticeably curtailed speeding in some areas and won some support, vocal opposition continues, with camera operators being harassed, state officials condemned, city officials pulling out of the program, lawmakers calling for a repeal, and even some police officers criticizing the program.
Much of that opposition could have been eliminated, or at least mitigated, with a better public education campaign and a few minor corrections to the scope of program, officials say.
"Favorable public opinion and public acceptance have been named most often as the aspect that can make or break an automated enforcement program," said Amy Polk, a researcher at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Washington, D.C., who has studied the start-up of photo systems across the country.
She said the ultimate success of the programs depends on how the technology is applied and how transportation professionals interact with state and local lawmakers, courts and the public.
"Absolutely, I agree," said Patrick Nelson, a retired police captain who heads the photo enforcement program in Portland, Ore., where cameras have been set out to catch speeders since 1996.
"We didn't do some of the stupid things other jurisdictions had done; we went to into the neighborhoods and worked with the public from before the program ever started," Nelson said. "If you do those kinds of things, the public understands and accepts the cameras a lot better."
In its contract proposal to the state, Lockheed Martin IMS (which has since been bought out by current camera operator ACS) offered an extensive public education program, noting that "support of the citizens is critical."
The 15-page proposal included a detailed analysis of special traffic conditions in Hawai'i, development of press releases and public service announcements, press conferences, media material, brochures, a "Supercard" direct mailing to all residents to describe the program's aims and methods, public surveys, community meetings and newsletters, public speaking engagements, a Web site, camera demonstrations at high schools, a media-relations program and annual reports to the media.
It also offered to make available at no extra cost a toll-free violations bureau hotline for state use to ensure that state switchboards were not clogged with questions.
When the contract was signed last year, however, the state added a one-paragraph publicity clause mandating that all media contacts would be handled by the state, not ACS.
"The state generally takes the lead with any contractor," said Department of Transportation spokeswoman Marilyn Kali. "We've been working together with the contractor on some of those things, including public-service announcements on radio, speaking engagements and other informational material. It's not one day or one week, but a continuing program as long as it lasts."
Kali said the state anticipated some of the reaction, and met with officials in Arizona who had a similar program.
"We expected there to be a lot of controversy. We expected there to be a lot of questions," she said. "It wasn't as though we were unprepared. We thought we were putting out a lot of information. But I think what happened was people weren't really listening to what we were saying."
Critics charge the state did too little, too late.
"Anytime you put a project like this in place that changes public behavior, it's really important to do the right things from the start," said Lt. Gov. Mazie Hirono. "In hindsight, if we were dealing with a company with so much experience, maybe we should have listened to what they had to say."
ACS officials declined to comment, referring questions back to the Department of Transportation.
Nelson, the retired Portland police captain, suggested that Hawai'i's program might have been better received if it had started on a smaller scale, been limited to school zones and residential neighborhoods, been run by police officers rather than private contractors, told people there is a threshold for ticketing above the legal speed limit, and sent the citations to drivers, not the vehicle owners.
"Anytime you don't have police being part of the enforcement process, you're really going to have people cranked at you," he said. "When we went into the neighborhoods and asked them for their input and told them what we were planning, there was definitely an increase in acceptance."
Yoshimura agrees that the program tried to do too much, too soon.
"They went with a shotgun approach, trying to fix all these different things at once," he said. "They'd have been better off with a much more limited program; it was probably doomed from the start because of the random nature of what they were trying to do."
Kali said one of the public-opinion turning points for the program came when some people mistakenly thought there was a zero-tolerance level for speeders, prompting even normally lawful drivers to feel they could get one of the new mail-order citations.
"All I have said is if you exceed the posted speed limit, then you're subject to a citation. But what people are hearing is zero tolerance. And we have never said that. People have put their own spin on what I've said," Kali said.
Now the state walks a careful line to neither confirm nor deny that there is a "threshold" above which speeders will be ticketed, but the radio talk shows and letters-to-the-editor pages continue to be filled with a vitriolic reaction to the program.
With Honolulu withdrawing its support, Neighbor Island leaders wavering and some state lawmakers calling for a repeal of the legislation authorizing the use of the cameras, can the trial program survive?
"I don't know," said Mufi Hannemann, a former city councilman and candidate for mayor. "Obviously the thing got off on the wrong foot and hasn't been able to get its momentum back. It's going to take a lot of education."
Kali, though, thinks the program has reached another turning point. Last week, when reports about harassment of camera operators reached a high point, complaints to the Transportation Department dropped dramatically and calls of support went way up, she said.
"All of sudden people are responding differently," she said. "I think people sat down and figured out that it's possible to drive at the speed limit. The first month might have been difficult, but it's getting easier and easier all the time."
Reach Mike Leidemann at firstname.lastname@example.org or 525-5460.