Something's wrong with Baltimore's speed cameras

If Baltimore City's revenue from speed cameras is exceeding projections by millions of dollars, there is something wrong with the way they are being used. The purpose of speed cameras and the reason the state allows them is to cut down on speeding, not to raise money. The idea — and the experience in other Maryland jurisdictions that have used them — is that once people get a ticket or two, they learn their lesson and slow down. The notion that Baltimore City drivers are too thick-headed or lead-footed to learn this lesson, as Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake suggested at this week's Board of Estimates meeting, simply doesn't wash.

Baltimore began installing speed cameras in fiscal 2010, and it has steadily increased the number it employs since then, from 28 initially to 83 today. The fact that total speed camera revenues have increased during that time, then, is no surprise. But revenue for the fiscal year that ended in June exceeded expectations by $4 million. The figure would have been higher if not for more than 3,000 tickets that were thrown out because of an error in their processing. In all, the city collected more than twice as much for its speed cameras as the state did from those posted in highway construction zones across Maryland.

The city needs to take a comprehensive look at how it is choosing locations for its cameras, the size and positioning of signs warning motorists of them, and particularly at its use of mobile cameras that can be placed in a given location for short periods of time. Because of the processing lag between a camera catching someone speeding and when the ticket is received in the mail, the deterrent effect of a camera can only be fully realized if it is kept in place for a sufficient period of time.

Fortunately, Mayor Rawlings-Blake has plans to do just that. Her glib rhetoric at the Board of Public Works notwithstanding, she is in the process of putting together a study group including experts inside and outside of city government to evaluate the city's speed camera program. A spokesman said he expects the details of the group's mission and membership to be announced soon.

In the meantime, the mayor is absolutely right in her resistance to City Council efforts to spend the windfall to keep open a fire company. State law requires speed camera revenue be used to support public safety, and a fire company, as City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young suggests, may well be permissible. But it is unwise.

The city needs to make whatever adjustments are necessary so that speeding on the streets monitored by the cameras and the resulting revenue are reduced. The fact that Ms. Rawlings-Blake is sticking by her budget office's projections for steadily diminishing returns from the cameras is an indication of her commitment to that goal. Funding an ongoing expense, like a fire company, from a funding source that the city is trying to reduce is foolhardy.

That's why the mayor's plans for how to use speed camera revenue make sense. The baseline amount the city has budgeted for will be used for traffic law enforcement, and any excess will be used to install traffic calming devices — one-time revenue used for one-time expenses, fines from speeders used to further reduce speeding.

Ms. Rawlings-Blake may have been impolitic when she called the $40 tickets a "minor inconvenience for people who routinely break the law," but on the substance of the issue, she stands far above those who complain that enforcing the speed laws is diminishing the quality of life in Baltimore neighborhoods or those who are salivating for ways to spend the found money. Speeding by 12 miles per hour or more in school and construction zones — the violation the cameras are designed to catch — is no joke. It is a deadly problem, particularly in Baltimore City. We encourage the mayor to look closely at the city's speed camera program to make sure it is performing as designed, but when it comes to debates about whether to keep the cameras or how to spend the money, she should stand her ground.

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