Editorial: Cameras catch traffic violations in a flash

It's as basic as it gets: Red means stop; green means go. Kids learn it long before they're even old enough to reach the pedals. The more complex lesson that a yellow light means clear the intersection, not slow down, often is lost even on people who have had their driver's licenses for years.

Knowing and doing, however, are two different things, as evidenced by the large number of tickets issued by red light cameras in Bel Air, even though the red light camera program has been in operation for long enough for drivers to have gotten the message.

Part of the problem appears to be that the definition of stop — like the meaning of the yellow light — isn't clearly understood, as evidenced by the number of people ticketed by the camera at Baltimore Pike and Kenmore Avenue. A substantial number of those who received tickets contend the camera was malfunctioning because it had issued them tickets at a right turn on red intersection and they had made right turns on red.

As it turns out, the camera is equipped to distinguish between a right turn on red and a red light runner, but there's a key driving step that is skipped, resulting in tickets being issued. The key step: It's actually right turn on red after coming to a complete stop. It turns out the Urban Dictionary term Hollywood stop isn't recognized by the red light camera. The top definition on the Urban Dictionary web site is: "A term used to describe an incomplete stop of a vehicle, usually at a stop sign, predominantly by police officers." Farther down the term is put in use: "Dispatch, I have some punk that pulled a Hollywood stop at the intersection of Elm and Eastland. I'm going to stop him."

It appears that's exactly what's been going on at the Kenmore-Baltimore Pike intersection, and probably at more than a few other intersections as well. The practice apparently is so commonplace that people don't necessarily realize they're doing it, but, according to information from the Bel Air Police Department, the camera doesn't lie.

As for the effect of the cameras on driving habits, from 2010 to 2011, it appears there was an incremental drop of 689 in the number of red light tickets issued in Bel Air from 6,240 in 2010 to 5,551 in 2011. Similarly, there have been relatively small decreases in the numbers of traffic accidents where red light cameras are on 24-hour patrol.

Meanwhile, town revenue from the cameras has been fairly substantial at $314,200 in 2010 and $273,500 in 2011. This remains a sore point as the added revenue has been something of a windfall for the town government. Possibly, it would be better if the take from red light cameras were to go into a state reward fund that would divide the take among Maryland driver's license holders who don't get a ticket over the span of a year. That would be a heck of an incentive to be a safe driver.

Still, the negative incentive of the red light cameras does appear to be having a limited positive effect on the safety of the affected intersections, and that's a good thing in the big picture.

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