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Assembly to scrutinize speed camera law

Key lawmakers say that Maryland's speed camera law will get a hard look during the coming General Assembly session and that changes are likely.

In the wake of problems exposed in Baltimore's program, a House committee chair also said that city leaders and their initial speed camera contractor, Xerox State and Local Solutions, will be called to give an accounting.

City officials "obviously need to be front and center in this," said Del. Maggie McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat who chairs the House Environmental Matters Committee, which would consider any speed camera legislation. "They're going to have to be there explaining. The vendor is going to have to be there explaining," she said. The city is switching contractors in January, but Xerox still runs the cameras in other Maryland counties.

A 2009 state law enabled local governments to install speed cameras in areas near schools. Baltimore and other jurisdictions have since installed more than 100 cameras across the state. The State Highway Administration also operates speed cameras in work zones.

A Baltimore Sun investigation documented problems with the city program, such as cameras issuing tickets to cars that weren't speeding, including one that was stopped at a red light. The newspaper found that tickets issued in some other jurisdictions lacked the detailed time stamps needed to verify accuracy.

AAA Mid-Atlantic, which is a part of a task force set up by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to review the program, called the speed camera issue in Baltimore "a nightmare."

State leaders have not endorsed any specific proposal, but McIntosh and the chair of the Senate committee anticipate outrage over speed cameras will to lead to adjustments.

Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat who chairs the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, predicted that the law will be "fine tuned," adding, "We can certainly do better than what it looks like we've been doing up to now." McIntosh said a variety of changes to the law will be considered.

Through a spokesman, Rawlings-Blake said her administration "takes camera accuracy seriously" and hopes her task force will help shape statewide solutions.

Legislators have floated many ideas — ranging from $1,000 fines for camera mistakes to stricter oversight. No speed camera bills have yet been filed in advance of the 90-day session, which begins Jan. 9.

Other proposals would make it easier for motorists to contest the $40 tickets, impose an auditing system, set stricter limits on when the cameras can be used and spell out provisions local governments must include in contracts.

The governor has said that paying a speed camera company based on the number of tickets — as Baltimore, Baltimore County and Howard County do — is illegal.

Under the state law, tickets can be issued to vehicles recorded going at least 12 mph over the speed limit. Since the speed camera program began in late 2009, the city has issued more than 1.6 million tickets and collected more than $48 million in fines from motorists.

Del. Jon Cardin, a Baltimore County Democrat, pitched the idea of penalties for erroneous tickets. "I am not offended by a policy that works. I'm offended by a policy that is taking advantage of normal citizens who are following the rules," he said.

A Xerox competitor, who is vying against the company for a speed camera contract in Chicago, has hired a Maryland lobbyist to track potential changes here, saying that a spotlight on the industry could reverberate elsewhere.

"We're hopeful that as the legislature considers changes to the programs, they take into account the overwhelming record of success of road safety cameras in Maryland and recognize the safeguards already in place to prevent this type of issue from happening in the future," said Charles Territo, spokesman for the Arizona-based American Traffic Solutions.

A Xerox spokesman declined to comment on potential state changes. The company's contract with Baltimore will end as of Jan. 1, but Xerox will continue to operate speed cameras elsewhere in Maryland, including in Montgomery County, where the program is not regarded as having significant problems.

Lawmakers say they want to protect programs that have successfully slowed drivers down without drawing massive complaints.

"Nobody likes getting a ticket, I think that's a given," said Frosh. "But the law works, and the law works well in Montgomery County."

There, a three-tiered system includes checks by two law enforcement officials, and a civilian worker reviews each potential citation before it is sent to a motorist, according to Dan McNickle, operations supervisor with the automated traffic enforcement unit.

Outrage over problems with the program in Baltimore has been welcomed by speed camera opponents. Annapolis Republican Del. Herb McMillan, who sits on a transportation subcommittee, said a speed camera program is predicated on public trust.

"To some degree, I think those who were pro-speed camera thought this wouldn't happen, that we needed to have a little faith in government. Well, I don't trust government," he said.

Del. Curt Anderson, a Baltimore Democrat who in 2009 voted for the program, said a dozen bills to make changes to the speed camera law were introduced in the last session, but none passed. Now, supporters of the program have joined opponents in calling for reform.

"There is so much concern — broad-based concern — that something's going to happen," he said.

ecox@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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