Smaller is better

Traffic cameras are there for safety, not for paying the city's bills

A Baltimore City Council investigative committee looking into the city's problem-plagued speed- and red light-camera program has discovered what should have been obvious all along: That the now suspended system was far too big to be managed efficiently, that it was set up too quickly by the companies contracted to install and operate the equipment and that it didn't have enough qualified staff to monitor all the errors in the avalanche of tickets it issued.

Given the magnitude of all those compounded problems it's no wonder the system failed. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake says she wants to resurrect the program next year with a system less prone to error, but if that's true it's long been clear what the blueprint of a better program should look like. The city needs a smaller, more narrowly targeted effort whose primary mission is making city roads and highways safer for motorists and pedestrians, not one primarily aimed at generating additional revenues for the municipal coffers.

Why it's taking so long for that to happen is a mystery. Mayor Rawlings-Blake says she's waiting until a City Council investigation is complete before moving forward, but so far, that investigation has told us nothing we did not already know. A recent city Inspector General's report accusing the mayor's former chief of staff of attempting to steer a speed camera contract to a particular vendor doesn't change matters either. The city didn't choose that vendor, and the official in question has since left city government.

At one point, Baltimore was running the largest speed- and red light-camera network in North America, and it was a major cash cow that city government milked for more than $140 million over the last decade. But as a Sun investigation showed, error rates for the speed cameras were far higher than the city or its vendors claimed. Part of the issue may have been technological, but it clearly also stemmed from a faulty review process for tickets that left too much discretion up to a vendor that had an incentive for more tickets to be issued and involved too little true oversight by the police department.

If the city is going to reconstitute it's traffic camera system, the way to do it is relatively simple and straightforward. It should follow the example of surrounding counties that have run similar programs for years without major mishap. Howard County has a particularly well-supervised program that has been effective in reducing speeds around schools. There is no need to reinvent the wheel, here, just to do what the legislature intended when it approved speed cameras in the first place.

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