Camera is not always candid; Drivers discover stoplight snapshots are not infallible

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Cecil Bray stopped just short of one of Howard County's red light camera intersections one wet September morning, but his car went over the white pedestrian crossing line, so he got a $75 ticket.

Genevieve McCardell stopped properly at another camera-monitored crossroads while the driver in the next lane screeched to a halt in mid-intersection. But she got a ticket -- because of a case of mistaken identity.

As Maryland communities from Bladensburg to Bel Air move to adopt the automatic camera method of discouraging red light runners pioneered by Howard County, a few people want you to know something -- the camera isn't always right, nor the photos unassailable in court.

The Howard County police who enforce the law, and the county's administrative District Court judge, agree.

That's why county police and the contractual civilians who process the photos at a regional center in Columbia are careful to discard any that are questionable, said Lt. Glenn Hanson, commander of Howard's Automated Enforcement Division.

"We issue only about half of all violations captured on film," Hanson said. Sometimes a traffic light is burned out and doesn't show red in the photo, or a license plate is obscured, or the car is a rental, or something on the road obscures the heavy white line that marks the legal start of the intersection at one of Howard's 24 locations.

"If we have a doubt, we throw it out," Hanson said. "We want to be fair to people" and also build confidence in the system. The surprising thing, Hanson said, is that after the camera law was enacted in 1997 and county police began issuing warning tickets, no motorists complained about Big Brother government peering over their shoulder. "It never came up," he said.

Even in Howard District Court, where about 60 red light tickets a month are docketed on a particular day, Judge James N. Vaughan said he has dismissed tickets against people on several occasions when snow had obscured the road lines, or even in circumstances similar to Bray's.

"If you're at a T intersection, you can go a car length and a half [over the white line] before you encounter another car," he said. On some occasions, he said, "I've come off the bench feeling that I'd found more people not guilty than guilty," though he doesn't keep count.

Tickets reduced

Still, the cameras are considered a success, with a 53 percent reduction in the number of tickets issued after the first year of use -- indicating that drivers are paying attention. Before the cameras, Hanson said, "there really was this perception that nothing was happening to people who ran red lights." Police believe, Hanson said, that "we're making the road safer."

Three counties -- Howard, Montgomery and Baltimore -- and seven Maryland cities, including Baltimore, have either begun using the cameras or have announced plans for them. Howard's enforcement division processes all the photos except Baltimore's.

Hanson said the overwhelming majority of people pay the fine without argument, especially because the tickets don't add points to a driver's record. The reason is that no driver is identified in the photos, which are taken from the rear.

Wiley Hall, a columnist for the City Paper in Baltimore, said he is a perfect example of the helpless defendant. He got a ticket this year for running a light on Broken Land Parkway at Stevens Forest Road in Columbia, he said, and paid the fine without a fight because he couldn't remember the incident and had no defense.

"I didn't remember being in that location," he complained, adding that he never runs red lights.

The whole system is unfair, he said, because cameras can lie and they aren't infallible, though most people think they are.

Inner workings

Here's how the system works:

Two strips of sensors are embedded a few feet apart in the roadway where a car approaches a heavy white line at the traffic light. The camera isn't activated until a split second after the light turns red. If a car hits the second sensor at a speed of more than 18 mph, the camera takes two photos -- one showing the vehicle approaching the line with the two red traffic signals in view, and the second showing it completely over the line.

After the film is scanned into computers, the images are reviewed three times in the processing center, which is in the county-owned former Allied Signal building, off Route 108. A view of the license plate is enlarged for inclusion on the ticket, which notes time, date, speed and other details.

Bray's ticket shows his car approaching the white line, his brake lights on, and the second shot shows his car stopped fully over the line at the edge of the intersection.

"Instead of jamming the brakes, I pumped and stopped, instead of skidding," he said about his stop on eastbound Broken Land Parkway at Hickory Ridge Road.

Bray complained that ticketing people who stop isn't fair. "I didn't even enter the intersection," he said. "I don't think that was the purpose of the red light program." He plans to take his case to a District Court judge in February.

Photographic mix-up

McCardell stopped for a red light at Broken Land Parkway and Cradlerock Way (north) 10 days later, and she was amused when the driver in the next lane screeched to a halt in mid-intersection, then backed up behind the white line. They even exchanged pleasantries.

"Don't you hate these things?" she remembers joking to him about the red light camera that both knew was watching.

She wasn't laughing, though, when her ticket arrived.

"I knew I hadn't gone through the light," she said, recalling the moment, but there was the photograph on the ticket of a car in mid-intersection and that annoying close-up of her rear license plate. "This is supposed to be infallible. The camera doesn't lie," were her thoughts at the time, and she assumed she must be guilty.

McCardell said that upon close inspection, she discovered that the operators examining the pictures mixed up her dark sedan with the one in the next lane -- the one that had crossed the line. After discussing the situation with police officers she encountered in her work for the Maryland Department of Juvenile Justice, she realized the mistake and visited the enforcement program headquarters. Hanson retracted the ticket and said it is one of only two errors of which he is aware.

Despite winning her argument, McCardell is still upset.

"People need to know this is not a foolproof system. There's a human element to this," she said.

Bray, meanwhile, feels he shouldn't be penalized for his efforts to avoid entering the intersection, but it will cost him a day's personal leave from work to make the point in court.

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