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News Opinion

Despite isolated problems, Baltimore's speed cameras save lives

Speed kills. Between 2001 and 2010, excessive speeding caused one-third of all traffic fatalities in Maryland. Maryland suffered 154 speed-related traffic fatalities in 2010. In comparison, the Maryland State Fire Marshall announced 71 fire fatalities in Maryland in 2010 — less than half the number who died from speeding. Ninety-five percent of those speed-related fatal accidents took place on urban roads. Speeding kills more than twice as many Marylanders as fires do, and it kills most of its victims on city streets.

Under the leadership of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the Baltimore City Department of Transportation works hard to keep Baltimore roadways safe. Speed cameras can help change driver behavior and assure that motorists obey traffic laws — decreasing the number of fatalities that happen too often on city roadways.

Studies have repeatedly proven that speed cameras can lead to up to a 50 percent reduction in crashes, and are most effective at reducing fatal and injurious crashes.

According to a recent Citizen Survey conducted by researchers at the University of Baltimore, city residents believe that people "disobeying traffic laws" is a "serious problem" that is getting worse.

It's true that Baltimore's automated enforcement program is imperfect, but it is also true that it is very effective in improving public safety. From July 2010 to June 2012, violations for failing to stop at red lights declined by 58 percent. Speeding events at fixed camera locations (vehicles traveling more than 12 mph over the speed limit) decreased by 80 percent from May 2010 to September 2011. And average speeds have dramatically decreased at all but four of the city's original 48 fixed speed camera locations, while violations at portable speed cameras have declined by 75 percent.

The main point of the recent articles by Scott Calvert and Luke Broadwater in The Sun is that the Baltimore program has errors. They state that after issuing 2.5 million tickets, their investigation identified about 6,000 citations issued in error. That's an error rate that is less than a quarter of one percent. Messrs. Calvert and Broadwater argue that "tickets routinely fail to hold up in court." Actually, the city has issued 1,604,328 speed camera violations between the program's inception and November 21, 2012. Of those, 19,689 were contested in court. That's less than 2 percent. Of those contested cases, district court judges found motorists not liable in 1,897 cases. That's one-tenth of one percent of all citations issued and hardly enough to merit the adverb "routinely." But such basic statistical analysis of the facts was completely absent from the stories.

Messrs. Calvert and Broadwater also wrongly accuse the city of "flout[ing] state guidelines calling for placement near schools." In fact, the enabling legislation authorizing local jurisdictions to locate speed cameras in school zones, available in the Transportation Article of the Annotated Code of Maryland, neglects to define what a school is. No law or even guidance existed when Baltimore City began implementing its school zone automated enforcement program that even suggested that a college or any other educational facility would not be considered a "school" under the law.

Once the city became aware that the state and AAA opted to only include K-12 in their interpretation of the law, at their choice and without any legal guidance, the city also opted to adopt this conservative interpretation. However, under no circumstances did anyone "flout" any law, guidance or collegial suggestion.

Messrs. Calvert and Broadwater condemn the city because "the citations don't mention that most cameras in the city also record video — and that those videos can exonerate drivers in court." What they neglects to mention is that the city is required by law to issue citations that match the statewide uniform citation and has little if any discretion as to what information it may provide. This notwithstanding, at the top of all citations, in boldface font, is printed a web address along with an individualized pin number allowing access to the associated violation video.

Mayor Rawlings-Blake has made clear that the Department of Transportation must do everything possible to reduce technical errors in the equipment, and we will. The department works hard to operate the program effectively with an eye toward accuracy. It follows its standard operating procedures for evaluating automated traffic violation enforcement systems in response to requests for cameras. And the department receives many requests; the department is processing a backlog of requests for speed cameras by city residents, who obviously support the program. The department's procedures require traffic engineers follow 32 steps to place a speed camera, including reviewing historical crash data, conducting of least 12 hours of field inspections, and evaluating the level of interest communicated by the neighborhood.

Further, Baltimore City uses all excess citation revenue on transportation safety improvements. The $4 million supplemental revenue received from the cameras last year mentioned in the Sun articles will be used to improve safety at intersections experiencing frequent accidents, upgrade traffic signal and signage technology, improve access for persons with disabilities to transit centers and other public accommodations, replace safety devices on ramps to I-83, MD 295, and other high-speed roadways, and develop additional bike lanes throughout downtown. Any revenue earned from the speed cameras goes right back to saving people from speeding vehicles.

This is, after all, the point: preventing speeding vehicles from killing people, which speed cameras help do. Appealable technological errors in less than one out of every 400 citations seems small price to pay to save lives. And, the mayor's Automated Traffic Violation Enforcement System Task Force will continue its work evaluating the city's camera enforcement programs by reviewing citation accuracy rates, camera locations, and program management. The task force will also review program data trends to ensure that the systems continue to help reduce speeds and improve public safety in Baltimore.

Khalil Zaied, Baltimore

The writer is director of the Baltimore City Department of Transportation.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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