6:00 AM EST, December 27, 2011
It's not difficult to get people incensed over a speeding ticket. It's an unwanted expense, a burden of paperwork, an embarrassment, an annoyance. And perhaps worst of all, they feel like the business end of a trap, a way for government to hook the unwary.
If nothing else, Maryland's unmanned speed cameras have been a boon to local talk-radio hosts as motorists call in to vent their anger and disgust. For many, the fact that they weren't pulled over by a police officer only exacerbates the circumstance.
Never mind that the tickets are limited to $40 no matter how excessive the violation and do not include any points against one's driver's license or cause insurance rates to rise. Callers just see that as more evidence that the purpose of speed cameras is to make money, not make the roads safer.
Small wonder then that a Baltimore County state senator has already promised to introduce legislation that would allow speed cameras in highway work zones only when there's at least one worker present on the roadway, median divider, shoulder or otherwise nearby. Sen. Jim Brochin cites the speed camera on the Baltimore Beltway at the Charles Street overpass, a $55 million construction project that has had little activity in recent weeks, as a prime example of why this is needed.
"There's no safety issue [at Charles Street]," the senator recently told a reporter. "Move the cameras to active work sites."
The only problem with this approach is that Mr. Brochin is dead wrong. He evidently thinks work zone speed cameras are there only for the benefit of workers (they aren't), that the beltway at Charles Street is otherwise perfectly safe (it isn't) and that speed limits shouldn't be enforced 24 hours-a-day and 365 days per year (they should).
When the General Assembly agreed to allow a limited number of speed cameras in work zones, it was not only for the benefit of workers but of motorists. According to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data, in four out of five work zone crashes, it is a driver or passenger who is injured or killed. Work zones pose a serious risk because of narrowed lanes and unusual traffic patterns even when there is not a single worker on site.
Speed makes a difference. Not only are crashes less likely when drivers slow down but the severity of accidents is reduced. And it would be difficult to argue that speed cameras haven't caused traffic to slow, as State Highway Administration data clearly demonstrates.
According to the SHA, there has been a 75 percent reduction in the violation rate of vehicles since speed cameras were installed in a handful of work zones. In other words, while about 2.2 percent of drivers were clocked exceeding the speed limits by more than 12 miles per hour (the minimum to receive a speed camera ticket) at first, about one-half of 1 percent do now.
Crashes are down, too, and the biggest improvement has been at Mr. Brochin's much maligned Charles Street site — down 22 percent on a yearly basis from 2008 to 2010 after the camera was installed at that location.
Do the devices earn money for the state? Absolutely, but not especially effectively. The falling violation rate means fewer and fewer tickets are being issued each day. So while the cameras have raised millions of dollars, the revenue is shrinking — and that's good because it means motorists are slowing down, which was, after all, the point of the whole exercise.
Sure, the state could flip a switch and turn off the cameras when workers aren't around. But that would only serve to put motorists at risk and send an unfortunate message to drivers that they're free to speed when nobody is around.
And what would be next? Cut off speed cameras in front of schools at the stroke of 3 p.m.? Or maybe tell drivers they can go as fast as they want on highways whenever traffic is light? No stopping at traffic lights when nobody else is around? All would invite chaos. Traffic laws aren't supposed to be part-time suggestions; the less they are respected, the greater the chances that bad things will happen.
So while we sympathize with those who have tickets to pay, we don't think speed cameras are a rip-off or hurting the state's business climate. Just the opposite is true. Better for Maryland to be able to brag one day about he safety of its highways and bridges, the lowering of its insurance rates, the decline in accident fatalities and the concern elected officials have shown for the well-being of those who travel and work on its roads.
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