Speed cameras proposed statewide

The Baltimore Sun

Police chiefs across Maryland want to replicate a Montgomery County speed camera program that brought in more than $2 million in county revenue last year and, according to one study, significantly decreased the number of speeders in monitored areas.

Under the plan backed by Gov. Martin O'Malley, cameras would be authorized in work zones on expressways and controlled-access highways where the speed limit is 45 mph or greater. Cities and counties could establish their own programs in school and residential zones where the speed limit is lower. Officials in Baltimore City and Prince George's and Howard counties are backing separate proposals, making it likely that speed cameras could proliferate soon even if the broader initiative fails.

But opponents who attended a Senate hearing yesterday said the cameras compromise public trust by presuming guilt, and can lead to abuses by private vendors who provide and maintain the equipment. Those companies take a cut of each paid citation.

"It gives perverse incentives that do not bode well for the public," said Theodore Giovanis, a Howard County resident who testified against the proposal.

The latest statewide proposal would assess $40 fines on the registered owners of cars traveling 12 mph or more over the speed limit as captured by the cameras. Citations would not be reported to the MVA, and drivers would not receive insurance-increasing penalty points on their licenses. Speed cameras would work much the same as red-light cameras throughout the state.

Last year, an O'Malley-backed statewide bill died on the final day of the session when Republican senators threatened a filibuster.

Baltimore County Police Chief James Johnson and a half-dozen other police officials testified in favor of the cameras. Johnson said surveys in his county have shown that more than 20 percent of fatal crashes were attributed to excessive speed.

The General Assembly approved Montgomery's pilot program in 2006, and it began a year later. Its 46 cameras generated $9.6 million in fines last fiscal year. Forty percent of that money went to the private vendor, and another $3.2 million was used to pay police salaries and operational costs associated with the program, according to Capt. John Damskey of the county police traffic division. That left the county with $2.6 million to spend on pedestrian and public safety initiatives - a requirement of the existing and proposed state laws.

Several lawmakers on the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee considering the bill questioned whether the intent of the proposal was to improve safety or make money. "It's the safety versus cash cow argument," said Sen. Bryan W. Simonaire, an Anne Arundel Republican.

Simonaire also asked why speeders should be subject to two sets of rules - higher fines and points if they are caught by a police officer and lower fines and no points if they are caught by cameras. W. Kevin Hughes, a legislative aide for O'Malley, said the $40 fee and lack of license points reflected a compromise brokered last year.

The speed-camera legislation squeezed through the Senate committee last year on a 6-5 vote, and Sen. Jim Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat who cast the deciding vote, said he has since rethought his support.

"We're in a major recession, and I just don't think this is a good place for people's paychecks to be going," he said after the hearing. "The economy has made me rethink things."

THE NUMBERS

Montgomery County's speed camera program:

* Began in 2007

* Uses 46 cameras; increasing to 66 cameras this spring

* Brought in $2.6 million in extra county revenue after paying the vendor and all operational costs.

* In the first six months of the program, the proportion of vehicles going 10 mph or more over the speed limit in active camera zones decreased by 70 percent.

* Speed violations fell by almost 40 percent in areas with camera warning signs but no cameras.

Information from 2007 Insurance Institute for Highway Safety evaluation and Montgomery County Police

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