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Stop, already


ONE-FIFTH of Baltimore's $10.2 million take from its red-light camera brigade last year came from tickets that might not have held up in court. The city should immediately stop sending out tickets that won't pass muster until it gets its signal boxes in order.

One out of five of the 136,000 citations paid last year noted that the yellow light lasted only 2.9 seconds before the car in the picture was caught crossing on red. According to federal rules -- cited by Maryland law as the basis for still-incomplete regulations -- a yellow light must last from 3.5 seconds to 6 seconds, depending on speed limits, traffic and road grades.

Most Baltimore intersections are programmed with 3-second yellow-light intervals, which it considers the standard until the state rules are formally approved. District Court judges are tossing out the 2.9-second tickets of the few motorists who show up in court because they don't pass the city standard.

That's a waste of court time and motorists' time, not to mention a source of ill will and annoyance.

The Department of Transportation says its signal equipment is old and not as closely calibrated as the new red-light camera setup run by the private firm Affiliated Computer Services Inc., and that ACS cameras may really be reading 2.99 or 2.90 but don't round up. So why not err on the other side -- say, set the light at 4 seconds? Or toss those tickets that will only be tossed later? And get those new signalers set up at the 47 current camera spots, as well as the 60 spots the department is planning to add.

One might well wonder if it is all just to boost the city's bottom line. Short yellows unfairly drive up the number of tickets issued; they take advantage of motorists who usually drive at intersections with lights timed to the federal standards.

That's not to say red-light ticketing isn't a good idea, especially in a city where red-light running is epidemic. The number of side-impact accidents at camera-monitored intersections has dropped 64 percent since the equipment was installed in 1999; the number of injuries fell 73 percent, according to the city.

Meanwhile, motorists who get these tickets in the mail should take a closer look at the time stamps -- and take 3.5 seconds to decide if they should whip out the checkbook or high-tail it over to District Court.

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