Red-light scofflaw program proposed Howard asks counties to share costs of tracking violators


Howard County wants to join forces with neighboring counties against red-light runners.

The county -- the first in Maryland to use automated cameras to photograph the license plates of stoplight scofflaws and send tickets to vehicle owners -- wants to share its facilities for processing the citations with other local governments. The goal is to lower costs for all.

Baltimore and Montgomery counties are considering the proposal, which Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker presented at a meeting of county and Baltimore leaders this winter.

"If we piggyback on what Howard County is doing, it will save us work and money," said Baltimore County Police Lt. Minda Foxwell, commander of the traffic management unit.

Under the Howard proposal, other counties could share the equipment and facilities that Howard has set up to process photographs snapped by red-light cameras and to issue citations.

"It's silly to set up six control centers when you can have one center," said Ecker, whose gubernatorial campaign recently publicized his red-light enforcement efforts.

Fed up with the dangerous and fairly common practice of red-light running, several cities and towns across the nation are using automated cameras to take snapshots of vehicles that enter an intersection after the light turns red.

A new poll conducted by Louis Harris for a safety advocacy group shows that 65 percent of Americans favor use of the cameras in their states.

Fear of red-light runners, who often inflict severe damage and injuries when they strike cars broadside, is fueling that support, said Judith L. Stone, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, which commissioned the poll.

"People don't want their children to be crossing at intersections and get hit by someone running a red light, and they don't want to get broadsided," she said.

In two well-publicized cases this year, a 7-year-old Baltimore girl and a Carroll County principal died in separate crashes that police said were caused by drivers allegedly running a red light.

In 1996, 25 people died and almost 4,000 were injured in Maryland crashes blamed on drivers failing to obey traffic signals, according to the State Highway Administration.

The red-light program in Maryland allows photographs of license tags. On the West Coast, some areas allow photos of drivers, which has provoked complaints from some privacy advocates, Stone said.

Howard County has issued more than 1,600 citations for $75 each since it launched the program in February, county police Lt. Glenn Hansen said. Like parking tickets, the citations are mailed to vehicle owners but do not appear on their driving records. Two percent of those ticketed have been appealed to District Court.

In the initial batch of 665 citations, 84 percent were paid -- a figure that could rise in coming months as vehicle owners receive follow-up notices, Hansen said. The 84 percent represents a slightly higher collection rate than the county gets for parking tickets, he said.

Although it does some of the work itself, the county pays private companies $28.96 per citation to supply the cameras, along with the computer software and hardware to process the photos. The costs could drop to as low as $9.99 per citation if other governments took part, he said.

Baltimore County is studying Howard's program. "We know where we probably would put them," said Michael H. Davis, spokesman for County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger.

But he said the county will not decide whether to proceed until it gathers six months' of data from Howard. That means the matter could not go before the Baltimore County Council for a vote before the summer.

Montgomery, which is testing one red-light camera in Bethesda, is considering Howard County's offer while "exploring other options," said David S. Weaver, spokesman for Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan. The county would like to start with 10 to 12 cameras, beginning this year or next, spokesmen said.

Baltimore City, which also is interested in installing red-light cameras, has turned down Howard's offer, said city Public Works Department spokesman Kurt L. Kocher. The city prefers to develop its own program, he said.

Anne Arundel County plans to place several red-light cameras at intersections next year, said Lisa Ritter, spokeswoman for County Executive John G. Gary. She said it was too early to know if Anne Arundel would join Howard.

The program works like this: A camera is situated about 60 feet in front of a busy intersection, with the lens trained on the traffic light. When the light turns red, sensors in the road trigger the camera if a car fails to stop. The camera takes pictures of vehicles entering the intersection, vehicles continuing through it and their license plates.

Pub Date: 5/18/98

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