By Ragina Cooper Averella
5:12 PM EST, March 4, 2013
With rampant abuses of automated speed enforcement camera systems across the state well-documented by the news media and AAA Mid-Atlantic, the House Environmental Matters Committee on Tuesday is poised to review a series of bills to fix a broken system.
AAA Mid-Atlantic worked with the legislature in 2005 to launch Maryland's first automated speed enforcement program in residential areas and school zones in Montgomery County. Again in 2009, we were before the legislature supporting the expansion of automated speed enforcement camera systems statewide for use in work and school zones. We recognized that police officers can't be everywhere and believed automated enforcement to be a significant safety tool to supplement law enforcement efforts to reduce speeding. More importantly, we believed that it could serve as a true life-saver on Maryland roads. But when we supported the use of automated enforcement before the Maryland General Assembly, we had some significant concerns. Unfortunately, we still do.
First and foremost, we were concerned that automated speed camera systems should have a clear focus on improving traffic safety, not generating revenue. Improperly used, we knew these cameras could become little more than ATMs for jurisdictions at the expense of motorists, with minimal safety impact. Unfortunately, those concerns have come to fruition. What started out as a dream to combat speeding and save lives on Maryland roads has, in many cases, become a nightmare, with abuses and broad misinterpretations of the law in several jurisdictions, overshadowing the original intent of automated enforcement.
The troubles, particularly with Baltimore's speed camera system, have been many. As The Sun has reported, motorists have been cited for speeding in school zones even when they were stationary. Even AAA Mid-Atlantic received an erroneous ticket, as one of our drivers was cited for going 57 mph in a school zone when he was clearly stopped at a red light. And then, there's that little issue of: What, exactly, is a school zone? By Baltimore's original interpretation, practically the entire city was designated a school zone. By state law, it is K-12 schools — not nursery schools and not colleges. Baltimore was initially using all of these in its criteria for camera placement, before being questioned about the practice by AAA.
In College Park, we have also raised concerns about the accuracy and legality of automated speed cameras, as well as that city's commitment to due process and fairness for ticketed drivers.
Another concern for AAA is how contractors who operate the cameras are paid. Jurisdictions across the state have found ways to circumvent the intent of the original law: to have vendors paid a flat fee, not per ticket. Paying vendors a portion of each citation creates an obvious conflict of interest, by establishing incentives for large numbers of tickets to be issued.
While some are calling for a repeal of automated speed enforcement altogether, AAA Mid-Atlantic believes that when utilized properly, automated speed enforcement can still be a valuable tool that saves lives and changes driving behaviors. We have seen success with the State Highway Administration's use of speed cameras in work zones. SHA's signage is clearly visible and gives motorists ample notice that cameras may be present. Data show that since the implementation of its program in Maryland's highway work zones, fatalities have declined by 67 percent. Additionally, the number of citations issued has dropped, suggesting that motorists are changing their behavior and slowing down, resulting in safer conditions for all.
AAA is calling on legislators to fix the system and restore the public's trust, with the following recommendations:
•Establish oversight — currently there is no entity or agency that can hold jurisdictions accountable when they violate the provisions of the law;
•Clarify the funding structure so that vendors are paid a flat rate;
• Implement a standard for tickets, as none exists for what information must be contained on a ticket;
•Require that motorists can have proof of their alleged speed, especially given the known fallibility of the equipment.
AAA Mid-Atlantic remains committed to the safety of motorists, highway workers and schoolchildren. We are encouraged by the steps that Baltimore has taken to correct its system, but more must be done. We are hopeful that the legislature can strengthen the law and close the loopholes that are allowing motorists to be unfairly penalized and calling into question the integrity of a measure that's supposed to be about safety, not money.
Ragina Cooper Averella is the public and government affairs manager for AAA Mid-Atlantic. A former Baltimore police officer and director of public affairs for the city's police department, she also serves on Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's speed camera task force. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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