Baltimore City taxpayers are now the proud owners of 155 speed cameras and 81 red light cameras, none of which are currently operable. For a mere $600,000 (on top of $2.2 million for the cameras themselves), Baltimore has ended its relationship with a vendor that was unable to assure reliable and accurate use of the city's extensive traffic enforcement camera network. Now some City Council members are suggesting that we wash our hands of speed cameras altogether, with one proposing that we fund new police traffic enforcement by putting the equipment on eBay.
Given the mess Baltimore made of its speed camera network, the sentiment is understandable. A Sun investigation last year found widespread errors in which cameras ticketed cars that weren't speeding — including, memorably, one that was stopped at a red light — and other cases in which cameras were set with the wrong speed limit or the incorrect address. Judges routinely threw the tickets out when they were challenged in court, and not without reason.
The biggest question about the city's speed camera program, though, was whether it accomplished what it was supposed to. Baltimore generated millions a year in revenue from its speed camera network, but it's unclear how effective it was in getting people to slow down. In other jurisdictions, the experience has been that speed camera revenue starts out high but drops rapidly as people learn their lesson and slow down. But in Baltimore, that didn't happen. In the fiscal year that ended on June 30, 2012 — the last full year in which the system was operating — revenues exceeded projections by $4 million.
Both Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's administration, and the council members suggesting a total shut-down of the system, would do well to read the report Howard County Police Chief William J. McMahon filed in March about that county's speed camera program. Howard County isn't the only jurisdiction to see good results from its speed cameras — for example, Baltimore County, which uses cameras in up to 40 locations, reports that citations in its school zones drop by as much as 50 percent within a few months of the cameras' activiation. But in terms of doing more with less, Howard is hard to beat.
Rather than deploying a network of fixed cameras throughout the county, Howard employs two camera-equipped vans that are driven and operated by police department employees. The vans shuttle among designated school zones, where signs warn motorists of the speed limit and the possibility of photo enforcement. The police department decides where, when and how often the cameras operate, and it posts that information in advance on its website.
What Howard has discovered is that it's not necessary to have a camera in operation continuously in a particular location to get people to slow down. In fiscal 2012, the two vans rotated among 54 locations, spending as little as 4 hours near one school (Bryant Woods Elementary) and as many as 463 near another (Centennial High). Even so, speeds dropped on two-thirds of school zone roadways, by as much as 11 miles per hour. In the first full year of operation, the number of accidents in those school zones dropped by 18 percent, and the number of accidents involving injuries — admittedly, a small sample — was cut in half.
Another thing that should mollify skeptics: Howard's speed camera program is basically a break-even proposition. In fiscal 2012, given an initial warning period for motorists and some start-up costs, the county actually lost a little over $30,000 on its speed cameras. In the first half of fiscal 2013, it made about $60,000. Howard uses the same vendor Baltimore did initially — Xerox State and Local Solutions — and its contract also involves paying some per ticket fees, though the role Xerox plays a lesser role in the ticket issuance process than in the model Baltimore followed, and Howard officials insist it affords no possibility that the company could artificially boost its profits by letting questionable tickets through. Tellingly, the county issued nearly 26,000 citations in 2012, but only 39 people chose to challenge their tickets in court, and of those, judges found only three not guilty.
The Howard approach is much more labor intensive than Baltimore's, which raises City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke's question about whether it would simply be better for the city to beef up manned traffic patrols instead of trying to make a speed camera system work. The Howard report offers an answer to that as well. The county's speed camera program provided 5,840 hours of enforcement over a 13-month period, resulting in an average of more than four tickets issued per hour. During that same time, county police officers spent 3,426 hours doing traffic enforcement and averaged one ticket every 94 minutes. A camera system, even one like Howard County's, is simply much more efficient. Given all else police are called on to do, particularly in Baltimore, it's hard to justify not taking advantage of such a tool when it's available.
Speed cameras work when they're used properly. Mayor Rawlings-Blake is right to seek a retrenchment of the program rather than abandoning it completely, and we hope her administration will resist the urge to try to find a way to use all those cameras the city now owns. A small, targeted and tightly controlled program can be just as effective if not more so in keeping kids safe on their way to and from school.
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