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April 30, 2008

Seeing Red-Eye in the Camera

Kevin E. Dayhoff

The discussion and debate over speed and red light cameras continues to reverberate. It is one of a number of headaches lingering in the aftermath of the recent and unusual session of the Maryland General Assembly.


Mercifully, the session ended with the Senate and House bills, which would have granted statewide use of speed cameras by local jurisdictions, failing to pass.


Well, actually – technically – the legislation passed both houses. However, the respective versions ended-up with profound differences; it was referred to a conference committee, where it appropriately died.


One of the main sticking points was a poison amendment that would have sent the proceeds to the state as opposed to remaining in the local jurisdiction.


And there in a nutshell was the rub. If the legislation was truly offered as a public safety initiative, then why did it matter that the fines collected would not stay in the local jurisdiction?


If the truth were told, the purpose of the legislation was to “enhance” the coffers of local government. It was a wolf in the sheep’s clothing disguised as a “public safety initiative.”


Perhaps the only thing missing was language that the legislation is “for the children.”


Oh, sugarshoot! That’s right, it was “for the children,” after all.


This law was a joint initiative of the current administration and the Maryland Municipal League, and was designed to enable local governments to employ the use of speed cameras in work zones, residential communities and near schools.


To be certain, as a former member of the Maryland Municipal League’s board of directors, the problem of speeding in those areas is the subject of constant discussion among municipal elected officials.


In that context, I am aware that there are many elected officials who are sincere when they swear that speed and red light cameras are only an additional utensil in the toolbox to enhance public safety.


Unfortunately, I have also been privy to conversations with elected officials who candidly confessed in confidence that their main pre-occupation was revenue enhancement.


As a matter of fact, in a discussion item of former-Frederick Mayor Jennifer P. Dougherty’s March 11, 2003 ‘budget letter’ for her proposed FY 2004 budget to the Board of Aldermen, she wrote:


“Other possible additions to our revenue stream are the “Red Light Camera” and the “Speed Radar Cameras” (SB 455/HB 694). If we choose to pursue and adopt these options, our primary purpose must be to improve public safety not to raise money. Neighbors have often complained about “raceways” and “drag strips” that exist in our neighborhoods, this could be a way to enforce our City speed limits, protect neighborhood safety and augment public safety budgets. There is no mistake, however, that we will be able to generate revenue if the “camera” technology is adopted.”


For a political scientist, it has been fascinating to watch the grass-roots opposition to red light and speed cameras continue to grow.


Lost in the discussions around the kitchen table are that the cameras are a possible remedy for a basic public safety problem that prays on the minds of everyone who travels the roads to pick up the kids after school and head over to the grocery store.


After all, everyone is aware that speeders and red light runners kill innocent people. If the cameras can save your life, or that of a loved one, friend, or neighbor, then what’s the problem?


The problem is that for families who are struggling to keep the lights on and fill the car up with gas, the idea of getting a citation in the mail, days after the fact, and being considered guilty before one can prove their innocence is perceived as just one more manifestation of a predatory government run amok.


Certainly not to be overlooked is the random and unexpected financial peril the enigmatic citation represents for a family struggling to buy food, and pay the mortgage and car payment.


Red light cameras have been around in Maryland for quite a number of years. Speed cameras were first proposed in Maryland around 2003. Four years later the Maryland General Assembly approved them for use in Montgomery County.


A March 2006 editorial in the Annapolis newspaper, The Capital, noted a fall 2005 Washington Post “analysis of red-light camera use in Washington, D.C., where such devices have totaled up more than 500,000 violations and $32 million in fines in six years.”


The analysis found that “the number of accidents at intersections with the cameras was going up at either the same rate or a faster rate than at intersections without the cameras. There was no evidence the cameras were preventing collisions or injuries.”


Nowadays, common courtesy on the roadways seems to be in increasingly short supply. Nevertheless, perhaps the first mention of addressing the problem of speeding, in Carroll County, came in June 1839.


According to a history of the Westminster Police Department, it was then that a speeding ordinance in Westminster was passed that said: “No person shall run or drive through the town of Westminster at an improper gait except in case of necessity.”


Apparently, taking traffic safety seriously is nothing new to Carroll County. In November 1857, the Westminster Common Council essentially fired bailiff – now known as a police officer – James Keefer “for his neglect in complying with (the) ordinance … related to the fast driving of buggies.”


Advocates for red light and speeding cameras still need to make their case. The perception is growing that the cameras are much more about raising money than traffic safety.


As much as it is impossible for police officers to be everywhere all the time, the best way to address traffic safety, when common sense and prudence have taken a holiday, is by awareness and education – and “constant enforcement” – by humans, not predatory computer programmed cameras.


Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster: E-mail him at:

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