As Harford County's law enforcement officials consider whether to start using cameras to enforce speed limits in school zones, they'd do well to consider not only the embarrassing experience of Baltimore City's speed camera program, but also the mixed blessing of Bel Air's red light camera program.
When the Town of Bel Air first looked into putting enforcement cameras at traffic light intersections to catch and fine red light runners, it seemed like a great idea.
Red light running was rampant at many intersections, and traffic accidents were the result.
The town contracted with a private firm. Cameras were installed at various intersections throughout town.
The result proved to be something of a mixed blessing. Red light running was curbed, though it didn't end. Accidents, similarly, decreased at red light camera intersections. The other result was that the town took in an unexpectedly large amount of revenue.
At first blush, it seems the results were all positive: fewer red light runners, fewer accidents and more money. The money, however, became something of an issue in town when the subject of getting traffic light cameras for not-so-busy intersections where red light running was seen as a public hazard. Because the town contracts with a private company which derives its income by claiming a percentage of the fine money, cameras, it turned out, would only be placed at intersections where a steady stream of income for the vendor could be reasonably expected.
Thus, enforcement of this kind became based not on public safety considerations, but rather on the considerations of a private company that's only in it for the money.
Red light cameras remain in Bel Air, and they have a measure of effectiveness at the intersections that produce revenue, but the odds of expanding the program to make less busy intersections safer at busy times of day are slim because there's no money in it.
Meanwhile, Bel Air and the vendor that manages its red light cameras continue to take in a relative windfall in fine money, thanks to the cameras at busy intersections.
As a matter of practicality, law enforcement always has had to make judgment calls about how to best allocate limited resources to best keep the community safe. This, however, is a judgment call based not on the cost of providing enforcement, but on how much money will be generated by issuing fines once enforcement efforts have begun. Issuing fines not as punishment but as a means of collecting revenue is weak public policy.
When he raised the possibility of installing speed cameras in school zones recently, Sheriff Jesse Bane was careful to express skepticism in light of Baltimore City's speed camera experience. The Baltimore Sun has reported at some length on problems with the speed cameras and made note of cases where tickets were issued to cars that weren't even moving.
It remains to be seen if the technological difficulties Baltimore City has had with its speed enforcement cameras can be overcome, or lived down. Until the technology is a good deal more reliable, and worthy of public confidence, Harford County would do well to stay away from speed cameras.
The overall effectiveness of speed cameras in getting people to obey the speed limit, however, is something that needs to be taken into consideration. Once a speed camera's location is known, drivers can be expected to slow down when they approach, but they're likely as not to speed up when they're past the danger. By contrast, running a red light is an all or nothing proposition.
Even if the technology is improved to the point of being reliable, the problem of having to hire profit-oriented vendors to run the cameras is likely to remain. One critic of the Baltimore City program suggested vendors be hired at a flat rate, and the city, county or municipality take the variable revenue.
Had Bel Air done this – if the option had been available – it is entirely likely it would have taken in enough red light ticket money from busy intersections to cover the cost of putting cameras at not-so-busy intersections.
As it stands, traffic enforcement camera technology has become a solid revenue stream for private companies that administer and manage the cameras, as well as for the local governments they contract with. With so much money coming in from traffic tickets to both the vendors and local governments, there is no real incentive to truly put an end to red light running or speeding.
If the profit motive were to be mitigated by paying vendors flat rates for their services, and requiring ticket money to be reimbursed as bonuses to drivers who don't receive tickets in the span of a year, possibly the incentive for safe driving would be increased, even as the profitability of safe driving is diminished.
In the short term, though, speed cameras for Harford County are a bad idea, and red light cameras seem increasingly suspect so long as they remain only at profitable intersections.