Safety or revenue?

New data suggest Baltimore's speed camera program was about money, not safety.

Before it was shut down over reports of widespread errors, Baltimore ran by far the largest speed camera program in the state and one of the largest in the nation. It generated a lot of tickets and a lot of revenue for the city — so much so that officials were fighting over what to do with the excess cash. But did the city's cameras keep schoolchildren safer, the one and only thing state lawmakers wanted them to do when they authorized the devices' use state-wide?

New evidence raises some doubts. The Sun's Luke Broadwater reported on Sunday that there were no pedestrian injuries in school zones in Baltimore in 2012, the last full year in which the cameras were in effect. There were also no pedestrian injuries in Baltimore school zones in 2013, a year in which the cameras operated for only about three weeks. Data for 2014 aren't yet available. The overall numbers for injuries among pedestrians under age 18 in the city were similar between the two years, with 261 such injuries including one fatality in 2012 and slightly fewer, 221 injuries with no fatalities, in 2013. Overall auto crashes in the city (regardless of whether a minor or pedestrian was involved) increased slightly in 2013, but the number of crashes involving an injury declined somewhat.

That doesn't mean that speed cameras can't be effective at improving safety or that speeding in school zones isn't a problem. What it does reinforce, though, is the idea that the Baltimore speed camera program was not tailored as specifically as it should have been to reducing speeds in the most dangerous areas around schools.

Take, for example, the camera at the intersection of Charles Street and Lake Avenue in North Baltimore. Initially, officials said it was to protect students at the Church of the Redeemer preschool on Charles Street, but after objections from AAA Mid-Atlantic, the city agreed to limit its cameras to areas around K-12 schools. It didn't move the camera, though, but switched its justification to the Bryn Mawr school, which is within half a mile of the camera as the crow flies. That begs the question: Was the placement of that camera driven by a finding that a large number of children on their way to and from school were at risk, and maybe the city was just confused about which school they attended, despite Bryn Mawr offering the clues that its students are older, all girls and wearing green and white uniforms? Or was it perhaps determined by the fact that the speed limit for traffic southbound on Charles Street drops from 40 miles per hour to 30 just before that spot?

While that case may have been particularly egregious, it wasn't an anomaly. Many of the city's cameras were placed on major arteries with multiple lanes of traffic going in each direction, which both tested the devices' technology and stretched the public's understanding of what they were supposed to be for. The General Assembly weighed in on the issue this year by including additional restrictions on the placement of cameras as part of a broader reform package. The cameras can still be placed up to a half-mile from a school, but they must be in an area where school buses load or unload or students walk or bicycle to school.

If city officials are determined to repeat their mistakes of the past, that new language might not be strict enough. The law doesn't say how many kids have to walk by a particular speed camera location to justify it, or how often. Cynics will doubtless see a huge loophole there for the city to exploit, and they will likely view the data reported by Mr. Broadwater as justification for shutting the cameras down altogether.

But we can't let what Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's administration has admitted to be a flawed program distort our view of these devices generally. For a counter-point to the city's experience, consider Howard County, which runs a nearly revenue-neutral speed camera program. There, according to the police department's most recent annual report on the matter, a handful of mobile cameras rotated through a series of locations identified as dangerous through speed studies has been markedly successful in getting motorists to slow down. As of the end of 2013, the department reported that 85th percentile speeds had dropped by as much as 15 miles an hour in 71 percent of the locations — a remarkable result given that the cameras were in operation for no more than 300 hours in any one location and generally much less.

Ms. Rawlings-Blake has said she wants Baltimore to have a much smaller, more manageable program. We certainly hope that if and when the cameras go on again, Baltimore will take the spirit of the law to heart in selecting locations because it's clear that a well designed and effectively targeted program can keep kids safer.

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