Safer roads focus of agenda


Seeking to make Maryland's roads safer, the General Assembly began considering yesterday proposals to crack down on drunken drivers and target speeders through cameras capable of issuing hundreds of tickets an hour.

The radar cameras are a spinoff of automated equipment used in Maryland to issue citations to drivers who run red lights. They would allow police to send $100 tickets to speeders though the closest officers might be miles away.

"The people who obey the law will not have any problem with this," said Sen. Jennie M. Forehand, a Montgomery County Democrat and sponsor of the bill.

But the fate of Forehand's legislation remains in doubt, especially as some lawmakers push a bill that would ban the commonplace red-light cameras.

"We can have public safety without intrusion on people's privacy," said Sen. Alex X. Mooney, a Frederick County Republican who is sponsoring the measure. "I am worried about where this goes."

Also on yesterday's safe-driving agenda in Annapolis were proposals to toughen drunken driving sanctions. Lawmakers said they want to close loopholes that give too many breaks to repeat offenders and underage drinkers.

Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, a Calvert County Republican, is pushing a bill to replace community service as a sentencing option for repeat offenders with jail time.

"We need to go after those who really endanger our families on the road," O'Donnell said in a morning news conference before hearings on the legislation.

O'Donnell and other state and federal officials told the House Judiciary Committee that drunken drivers too often are allowed to plea bargain their sentences down to community service, only to repeat the same behavior.

"All we're saying is community service is not effective," said Kevin Quinlan, chief of safety advocacy for the National Transportation Safety Board. "Research has shown community service has no impact on recidivism."

Other bills would require courts to sentence repeat offenders to jail time rather than grant probation before judgment if more than one offense occurs within a 10-year period. Current state law allows judges to grant probation before judgment if five years separate drunken-driving incidents.

"That other chance could kill someone," said Sen. Ida G. Ruben, a Montgomery County Democrat and bill sponsor.

A third bill would impose driver's license restrictions on those convicted of alcohol-related crimes, and a fourth would make underage drinking a violation of Maryland law. State law makes it illegal for someone underage to possess alcohol but does not ban consumption.

But prospects for the drunken-driving legislation remain uncertain in the House committee. Though its membership has changed significantly because of last year's election, that committee has been reluctant to pass tougher restrictions - usually doing so only under the threat of cuts to Maryland's share of federal highway construction funds.

In the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee yesterday, legislators heard testimony on red-light cameras and speed cameras.

Police and local government officials said the red-light cameras have been so successful at reducing accidents - such as a 48 percent reduction at one Laurel intersection - they want to use similar technology to curtail speeding.

Forehand's bill would allow local governments to set up radar cameras on residential streets and in school zones. The cameras could be installed elsewhere with the approval of the State Highway Administration.

The cameras would capture images of the license plates on all cars that exceed the speed limit by 10 mph or more. The tickets - which would not affect motorists' driving records - would then be mailed to the vehicles' owners.

Vehicle owners would be responsible for paying the tickets, unless they told a judge that they were not driving. They then would have to tell the court who was driving at the time, and tickets would be issued to them.

"Our purpose is not to write citations or collect revenue, but to educate drivers about speeding," said Lt. Keith Williams of the Anne Arundel County Police Department.

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