Under a program that supporters hope will spread statewide, motorists who run red lights in Howard County will begin receiving mailed warnings this week, complete with snapshots of them in the act.
The warning notices from police are the latest step in a pilot project using cameras mounted near county intersections to photograph cars that ignore red lights. Howard officials will ask the state legislature this winter to pass a law allowing them and other local governments to issue fines based on such photos.
Red light running is an increasingly common and dangerous practice throughout Maryland, state officials said. A motorist sails through a red light once every 16 minutes at a busy intersection on Little Patuxent Parkway in Columbia -- and once every seven minutes during the evening rush hour, county police said at a news conference in Columbia yesterday.
Using a $60,000 federal grant, the county has been compiling data on red light running since March from cameras installed at two intersections, according to Howard police Sgt. Glenn Hansen.
One camera is at Broken Land Parkway and Stevens Forest Road in Columbia. The second is on Little Patuxent Parkway, but Hansen declined to reveal the intersection.
The county plans to install a third camera at an undisclosed site.
Statewide, red light runners caused more than 3,500 collisions that killed 34 people and injured 4,256 others last year, according to State Highway Administration data.
Police and local officials said the public is demanding that more be done to combat these violations, but they don't have the money or personnel to solve the problem.
"The public basically thinks we're not doing enough about it. They don't see people being pulled over" after running signals, said Howard County Police Chief James N. Robey. "The public is right. We don't have enough police officers to put at every intersection."
Police do target red light runners, but it can require three officers at one intersection, County Executive Charles I. Ecker said.
Police estimate that personnel costs exceed $25 for each ticket issued by an officer.
Supporters say a camera is more cost-effective because it does not tie up an officer's time, works round the clock, and catches enough violators to pay for itself.
The camera is mounted several car lengths before an intersection. The lens faces the traffic signal and only captures photos of the rear of a vehicle. That is a concession to privacy advocates who do not want people's faces to appear in the snapshots.
The cameras remain off while the light is green. Once the light turns red, sensors in the road alert the camera when a vehicle fails to stop for the light. The camera takes two photographs, one of the car entering the intersection and a second of the car in the intersection.
Using motor vehicle records, police can send a notice to the car's registered owner.
Under state legislation to be introduced next month, local and state officials would be able to levy a civil fine of up to $100 with such a notice. The fine would be the owner's responsibility, just as with a parking ticket.
However, the violation would not appear on the owner's driving record and points would not be assessed against his license.
A recent mail survey of Howard County residents suggested that red light running is fairly common.
Sixty percent acknowledged running a red light at least once. Of those, many said they "couldn't stop in time," were afraid of being rear-ended by the car behind them, or were not paying close attention to their driving.
Thirteen percent said they ignored a light because they were in a hurry.
Almost a third of those surveyed said they saw someone run a red light a few times a week, while 17 percent witnessed the violation daily.
The Schaefer Center for Public Policy at the University of Baltimore tabulated the first 500 surveys returned from a mailing to 1,500 residents randomly picked from county voter registration records this fall.
Supporters of the proposed legislation include the Maryland Association of Counties, the State Highway Administration and state Health Secretary Martin P. Wasserman.
Pub Date: 12/10/96