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County poised to use speed cameras

The Baltimore Sun

Howard County's legislators seem poised to approve a local speed-camera bill after a straw vote and discussion with William J. McMahon, the county police chief.

"It might need some fine tuning," said state Sen. James N. Robey, the bill's prime sponsor, but the 11-member delegation voted unanimously to continue discussing the measure and vote on it Wednesday. A statewide bill that would cover work zones on interstate highways in addition to local roads is also to be introduced by Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration.

The county and state bills would impose $75 fines for speeding on local roads with speed limits up to 45 mph. O'Malley's bill includes warnings but no fines during the first year. The bill would also allow speeding up to 10 miles above the posted limit before triggering a camera ticket.

Robey offered to amend his bill, if needed, to get enough votes for passage, but state Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, a fellow Democrat, said after Wednesday's delegation meeting in Annapolis that he approves of the concept. A majority of Howard's three state senators and eight delegates must approve the local bill.

McMahon told the legislators that his officers used cameras to measure motorists' speed without issuing tickets for 18 hours during 2006 and found more than 500 motorists going more than 11 mph over the posted limit.

If he gets the authority, McMahon said he would like to get up to four stationary cameras, plus two $60,000 vans equipped with cameras and five civilian technicians to operate them.

Police employees would be involved in every decision on a violation, and a contractor would have no incentive to send out more tickets, he said.

"We realize there are a lot of concerns out there, but this is about slowing people down and saving lives."

Since the death in June of county Officer Scott Wheeler, who was hit by a motorist he was trying to stop for speeding on Route 32, the county has given up the "step-out" tactic for speed enforcement.

"We've seen a 33 percent decrease in the number of people we're stopping. The impact of [motorists] seeing those is gone. There is no message going out on a consistent basis that we're slowing people down," McMahon said.

The county averages four to five homicides a year, the chief told the legislators but has 20 to 25 highway fatalities a year, though last year there were 17, excluding Interstates 95 and 70, which are patrolled by the state police.

"We just want to take advantage of technology to add to our toolbox," McMahon said, vowing to mount a thorough publicity campaign so that motorists are not caught unaware.

McMahon said that one-fourth of all collisions are speed-related, and speed is a factor in about half of fatalities. A much larger number of lives are forever altered by injuries sustained in nonfatal collisions, he said.

"A big part of any program is a public awareness campaign," McMahon said.

Some legislators are concerned that the cameras are intended more for raising revenue than for law enforcement. Del. Gail H. Bates, a skeptic of the speed-camera idea, noted that Montgomery County, which has had the cameras since May, has collected $2.7 million, even though its cameras are allowed only on roads where the speed limit is under 35 and the fines are lower -- $40.

Del. Warren E. Miller said Montgomery motorists are encountering longer traffic jams in some places now, too, implying that the cameras may have slowed traffic too much.

"The last thing I want to do on our county roads is have horrible traffic jams," Miller said.

McMahon had a quick rejoinder: "What does traffic do when we close Route 99 due to an accident? This is all about changing behavior," he said.

Another critic of speed cameras, Del. Frank S. Turner, complained that a $75 ticket plus court costs if a ticket is contested, is too expensive for middle-income, working people.

"I have a real problem with the cost," Turner said.

McMahon shot back that speeding tickets now start at $135 and escalate quickly as speeds increase. "Seventy-five dollars is a bargain," he said. If people slow down, they won't have to pay anything, he added.

Bates also complained that the tickets will go the vehicle's owner, identified through the license plate, not to whoever was driving at the time.

"It looks like the car is the violator, not the individual. We're not going after the speeders. We're going after the car owner," she said.

A sunset provision, ending the law after a five-year period, was a suggestion from State Sen. Allan H. Kittleman, and McMahon said that would not be his preference, but he intends to continuously evaluate the program if he gets the right to start it.

The General Assembly passed a statewide bill authorizing speed cameras during the term of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who vetoed the measure. Montgomery County legislators got a local speed-camera bill passed last year.

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