Bill OK may add cameras at stoplights Governor expected to sign measure to catch scofflaws; 'A public safety issue'; Red-light runners would get photos and citations in the mail


A bill approved this week by the Maryland General Assembly could mean that Howard County officials soon will be putting more cameras at busy intersections and mailing tickets to those caught on film running red lights.

Beginning in October, the owners of cars photographed going through red lights may be fined as much as $100. The bill is expected to be signed into law by Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

Howard County is the first jurisdiction in the state to test the high-tech cameras on its roads and motorists -- though it has been sending out only warning notices, not tickets.

Two cameras have been in operation in Columbia since May at Broken Land Parkway and Stevens Forest Road and at Little Patuxent Parkway and Columbia Road.

The results have been startling, county traffic officials said.

As many as 90 drivers a day race through red lights at the Broken Land Parkway intersection, officials say, some going through 30 seconds after the light has changed -- at speeds of up to 60 mph.

The red-light violations at the two camera sites have been so egregious that the county spent its $2,000 film budget for the year in a little more than three months, according to C. Edward Walter, Howard County's traffic engineering chief.

For now, owners of cars caught by the cameras get a warning letter. The bill passed by the General Assembly would let police mail a citation that would be a civil violation, similar to a parking ticket.

The amount of the fine has not been determined, though officials say it could be as much as $100.

"These cameras and this bill should send a message that you can't go barreling through these red lights anymore," Walter said.

"I've seen every type of vehicle that's on the road -- including a police car, firetrucks and school buses -- run these lights well after they had changed," he said. "Now, we've got them on film."

State Del. Frank S. Turner, an east Columbia Democrat who sponsored the bill said the cameras will finally bring the problem of red-light runners under control.

"We really need to do something about stopping the fourth and fifth car from going through these red lights," Turner said. "People just don't have much regard for red lights anymore, and they take a lot of unnecessary risks."

Intersections in need

Turner said that cameras probably are most needed at the four busiest intersections in the county -- listing them as Broken Land Parkway and Snowden River Parkway and the intersections of Route 175 with Tamar Drive, Thunder Hill Road and Route 108.

"I don't think we need to spend the money on putting these cameras up all over the county," he said. "If we don't have more than four, I'd be happy with those."

Sgt. Glenn Hensen, supervisor of the Research and Planning Section for the Howard County police, said two more cameras are set to be put up within the next couple of months. He would not disclose the sites, however.

Walter said the cameras cost about $70,000 apiece to install and about $15,000 a year to maintain, but county officials said fines could easily cover any costs -- as revenues from the camera citations could total as much as $270,000 a month. The costs of two test cameras currently used in Howard County were paid by a $60,000 federal grant.

Turner said red-light runners are such a serious problem that the cameras go beyond solving the expense of issuing tickets and collecting fines. "I never looked at this as a revenue-raising item," he said. "I looked at this as a public safety issue."

An old concept

Red-light cameras have been used for years in many jurisdictions in California, Arizona and New York. Though the Maryland legislation would allow any jurisdiction to set up such cameras, officials in the other jurisdictions in the Baltimore area yesterday did not report any plans to do so.

"We'd eventually love to be able to use the cameras, but we're not set up for it now," said Lt. J. D. Smith, a traffic enforcement spokesman for the Baltimore Police Department.

The high-tech cameras used in Columbia are housed in white boxes and are triggered when a vehicle crosses the painted white line marking the intersection after the light has turned red. Painted signs with the words "Red Light Camera" are posted within 2,000 feet of the intersection.

The camera takes a color photograph of any car moving at 19 mph or faster, eliminating those slowing down to a stop or to turn right on a red light.

The film is collected from the sites every 24 hours. The photographs are scanned into a computer and police identify license plate numbers. The state Department of Motor Vehicles then provides the vehicle owners' names and addresses.

In October, owners of cars running red lights would receive in the mail two color photographs of their cars going through an intersection, along with the citation.

Pub Date: 4/09/97

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