Like vultures to offal or flies buzzing the garbage pail, the misanthropic among us didn't take long to attach their approvals to Wednesday's bizarre attack on a state vehicle used for speed camera enforcement along the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.
The only surprise was that comments posted on this newspaper's website and other forums didn't couch their plaudits in some manner that would at least give the appearance of civility. Something like, "I don't condone what happened, but …"
Instead, there was an unapologetic, "this is what happens when government runs amok" posted within minutes of the parkway's shutdown, when little was known about the incident except that a parked State Highway Administration Jeep had been attacked by a man wielding a shotgun and hammer who remained on the loose.
Needless to say, far less sympathy was shown by these "striking a blow for freedom" posters on the Internet over the last 24 hours to the frightened contractual worker inside the vehicle who was left to frantically blow the horn as his attacker smashed the SUV's windshield.
Let's make this clear: This was no civil libertarian exercising his right to protest. It was assault with a deadly weapon, a serious felony, and state police acted prudently when they chose to close the highway for hours Wednesday in an attempt to apprehend this criminal and protect surrounding communities.
That it took place practically in the shadow of Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport should only add to the public outrage over this. That anyone would elevate the perpetrator (who was allegedly yelling incoherently at the time) to folk hero status suggests that he may not be the only one with anger management issues.
Speed cameras — and their equally attentive sister, red light cameras — have certainly stirred ugly behavior in other parts of the country. Acts of vandalism against them are not unknown, and even their supporters have to acknowledge there's a Big Brother element to them that can be unsettling to those of us who like our privacy intact.
But the indisputable truth about them is that they cause traffic to slow down, and that makes the roads where they are used safer. The SHA uses this particular vehicle to calm traffic in work zones. The agency even posts warning signs where it's in use.
As a moneymaker, speed cameras are not all that great. So far, the SHA has raked in $18.4 million (as of May 31) and netted $12.7 million since October 2009, when the cameras were first used, all of which has gone to the Maryland State Police. Not only is that peanuts in the context of a $14.6 billion state general fund budget, but future revenues will likely decline as motorists grow accustomed to their presence.
But as a way to change driver behavior, they've been quite successful. SHA surveys have found fewer cars speeding in work zones since they went into use. It's too early to tell whether that will, in turn, significantly reduce the fatality rate. About a dozen people die in work zone accidents each year inMaryland.
The growing number of counties that have deployed speed cameras to enforce speed limits near schools have reported similar findings. The added bonus is that they allow police to devote themselves to other, usually more important, duties than running speed traps.
Shame on those who refused to acknowledge the public benefit accrued from such devices and prefer to foment hostility toward law enforcement efforts. Theirs is no more a crusade for a libertarian ideal than spray painting gang signs on an overpass. As for the B-W Parkway attacker, at best, his action constitutes vandalism; at worst, a felony. In either case, it should be unequivocally condemned.
Automated speed enforcement program violation rates per 1,000 passing vehiclesJuly, 2010February, 20110-5 mph over limit57186-10 mph over limit10311-20 mph over limit2.20.5>20 mph over limit0.30.3Source: Maryland State Highway Administration