… Debate in Towson echoes one heard across U.S. …
By Michael Dresser and Raven Hill, The Baltimore Sun
12:02 AM EST, February 8, 2011
Baltimore County’s decision Monday night to expand the use of speed cameras puts it in the middle of a national debate: Are the devices an effective tool for making roads safer or a method for localities to generate revenue?
A majority of County Council members said they were taking a stand for public safety by voting 5-2 along party lines to allow an unlimited number of cameras in school zones — and lifting a countywide cap of 15. Republicans Todd Huff and David Marks, who have questioned the need for additional cameras, voted against the bill.
Baltimore County’s embrace of the cameras brings it into line with about 80 other jurisdictions nationwide that have adopted the technology, according to Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
But across the country, decisions by localities to install speed cameras have frequently prompted lawsuits, and in some places voters have decided in referendum votes to take the devices down. After Monday evening’s County Council vote, Woodlawn resident Raymond Briggs echoed a common criticism of the cameras, saying, “They think we are ATM machines. That is a tax.”
In Maryland, the decision to allow the cameras came only after heated debate in the General Assembly, with opponents characterizing the devices as a threat to privacy and an extension of the power of “Big Brother.” A bill that allowed Montgomery County to become the first jurisdiction in Maryland to use such cameras was initially vetoed by Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. before the Democratic-controlled legislature overrode his decision in 2006.
Since then, the General Assembly has allowed localities to decide whether to use the cameras in school zones, and has authorized state highway officials to deploy them in work zones.
Maryland State Highway Administrator Neil J. Pedersen said Monday that his employees and contractors have noticed a drop in the speeds of vehicles passing through work zones where cameras are used. He said studies show a substantial decrease in the number of motorists exceeding the speed limit by 10 mph or more in those zones.
“Preliminary data are showing that [speed cameras] have been very effective,” said Pedersen.
Rader said Maryland is one of the states in the forefront of the move toward speed cameras — even though only a handful of jurisdictions have taken advantage of the permission granted by the General Assembly in 2009 for installing them in school zones.
That law also permitted speed cameras in work zones operated by state highway agencies. There are now five such work zones around the state — four of them in the Baltimore area.
Localities that have installed the cameras have generally reported declines in speeding as a result. Baltimore County police reported that the number of tickets issued had dropped by half from August, when the cameras were introduced, to November. Baltimore city, which started using speed cameras in October 2009, has reported a 9 percent decrease in speeds in those zones.
Montgomery County’s speed camera program, launched in 2007, has a far more extensive track record. There, the County Council’s Office of Legislative Oversight found in 2009 that the cameras had been effective in cutting the number of drivers exceeding the speed limit by 10 mph or more in half. The study found that in the camera zones, the number of crashes resulting in an injury or fatality declined by 39 percent. For all crashes, the decline was 28 percent.
So far, those results have not been duplicated in Baltimore County, where police reported that crash rates at the camera sites remained unchanged.
One of the most frequent arguments used against speed cameras is that they are primarily aimed at increasing government revenue instead of increasing safety. Proponents insist safety is their No. 1 purpose, and that any revenue gained from their use is secondary.
The amounts raised are considerable, though they make up only a tiny traction of the revenue in jurisdictions that use them. In Baltimore, for instance, about 350,000 tickets were issued during the first full year of the program. Adrienne Barnes, a spokeswoman for the city Transportation Department, said that would theoretically yield $14 million if all tickets were paid in full — but in fact many tickets are ignored.
Pedersen said the state’s camera program operated in the red for most of last year before it began yielding a positive return late last year. Through December, he said, it had netted $7 million, which is being channeled into Maryland State Police traffic safety programs.
The Montgomery study found that the cameras at fixed sites raised considerable revenue when first installed. However, the report said the number of citations generated by the cameras dropped “precipitously” over the first year of operation as motorists became aware of their locations and adjusted their speeds.
Since the statewide law was adopted in 2009, Baltimore city has moved aggressively to adopt speed cameras — with 48 fixed locations and eight portable units that rotate among school zones.
The Baltimore County Council’s action echoed the nationwide debate.
“This is just a no-brainer to me,” said Councilwoman Cathy A. Bevins, a Middle River Democrat. “If this is what we need to do to deter speeding in a school zone, then I think that’s what we should be doing.”
But in the weeks leading up to vote, council members were subjected to personal attacks and harsh critiques.
Marks criticized efforts by the conservative group Campaign for Liberty to kill the bill by vilifying council members, including the two Republicans. The name-calling created a “toxic atmosphere,” said Marks, whose district includes Towson. “It seems strange to me that a group that sought our help and vote would use tactics like that to try and garner our support.”
Bevins said she’s received more than 120 calls and emails supporting the additional cameras and 50 against.
Councilman Tom Quirk, the bill’s lead sponsor, said the number of cameras shouldn’t have been limited in the first place. “We should have the number of speed cameras that are needed, whether that’s 10 cameras or 20 cameras,” he said.
Before approving the bill, the Council amended the bill to permit the use of mobile cameras. The council also decided to allow police to place them in school zones without council approval. The locations of the original 15 cameras were reviewed by the council before placement.
Speed camera programs need oversight but that doesn’t necessarily have to come from the council, said Lon Anderson, a spokesman for AAA Mid Atlantic.
Anderson pointed to Montgomery County’s citizens advisory commission, which works with the Police Department, as one example. Baltimore County should consider establishing a similar review panel, create clear criteria for locations and make sure that drivers are aware of the speed cameras, Anderson said.
“Make the signage more aggressive in those areas,” he said. Otherwise, “is it revenue you want or the deterrent you want?”
Regional chiefs of police have been among the biggest supporters of speed cameras, arguing that they don’t have enough officers on the street to adequately enforce traffic laws.
But Larry Harmel, executive director of the Maryland Police Chiefs Association and a former chief of the Maryland Transportation Authority Police, said there’s a potential downside. Sometimes, he said, it leads both chiefs and the rank and file to leave traffic enforcement to the cameras at the expense of old-fashioned traffic stops.
“Maybe I’m old school,” Harmel said. “That’s their duty to be involved in that.”
He noted that violations detected by speed cameras don’t involve points on a motorist’s driving record, which he considers one of the most effective deterrents to bad driving.
Copyright © 2011, The Baltimore Sun