Sorry, Chief: Coloradoan's warnings about photo-radar vans are a hit

Yesterday afternoon, the item atop the Fort Collins Coloradoan's breaking-news roster was an announcement that a photo-radar vehicle had been spotted "on LaPorte Avenue just east of Meldrum St. The van is targeting eastbound drivers."

Unusual? Not at the Coloradoan, which has posted updates about photo-radar vans and their locations semi-regularly for the past couple of years. But while radio stations have been known to share such info, Coloradoan editor Bob Moore doesn't recall seeing another newspaper take this approach -- although once rival editors see the following quote, they may give it a try.

"It's a very popular feature on our website," Moore notes. "Whenever we post one of these, it's almost guaranteed to be in our top-ten-viewed stories of the day."

Moore says the concept sprang from "a project on photo-radar vans and how much revenue they bring into the city. We created a database of some of the folks who've gotten tickets from a photo-radar van. And my name was on there twice." The pieces were so well read that "we decided to continue informing the public when vans were sighted," with readers increasingly calling in tips.

These blurbs garner a mixed reaction, Moore concedes. "Most people love it and think we're doing a community service," he points out. "But some people think we're undermining law enforcement."

Count among the latter group Fort Collins Police Chief Dennis Harrison.

"The chief isn't a big fan of it," Moore says. "We've talked about it a few times, and we've reached the point where we agree to disagree."

In Moore's view, there are at least a couple of reasons to continue with such articles. "Our interest is to get people to slow their speed down and drive safely -- with the added community benefit of maybe saving motorists a few dollars."

These heads-up presumably cut into revenue for Fort Collins at a time when cities across the country are desperate for every dime -- but Moore points out that "the city's official position is this isn't about the money. You know the old saying about when somebody says it's not about the money -- but the city officially says, 'We're not doing this to generate revenue. We're doing it to slow people down and make people aware of the speed limit.' And I say, 'Good for them,' because we're trying to do exactly the same thing."

Could the Coloradoan's warnings actually be causing more law-breaking, by letting drivers know where they can put the pedal to the metal without being caught? Moore doubts it. "Fort Collins is still a fairly small town, so it's not as if people are going to plan alternative routes where they can speed around these vans. And there are usually a couple of these vans out at any given time, and the police tend to put them in a small number of places. It's not as if they have a huge rotation of where they're going to put them."

In addition, the police are required by law to put up clearly visible signs to inform drivers that a photo-radar van is head -- although Moore feels they haven't always complied with this dictate as well as they could. Within the past three or four months, Coloradoan reporter Trevor Hughes "has started photographing these notice signs," Moore says. "In some cases, they've been placed near the ground where nobody can see them, or placed behind branches that block them from view. And since we started doing that, the city's gotten better about putting the notifications where they can be seen."

The Coloradoan hasn't sent out text alerts about photo-radar vans thus far, although Moore says that could happen in the future. Not that he wants to encourage people to fiddle with their phones while driving -- a big issue in Fort Collins due to the death of young Erica Forney in a distracted-driving incident that drew Oprah Winfrey to town this past weekend. "But if they check their text alerts when they get in their car, it could be a good reminder to keep things within the speed limit," he believes.

And to keep the photo-radar van items near the top of the Coloradoan's most-read list.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts