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Speed cameras on Baltimore’s JFX should be the start of many more on U.S. highways | COMMENTARY

An overturned SUV on southbound Jones Falls Expressway south of Cold Spring Lane ties up traffic.
An overturned SUV on southbound Jones Falls Expressway south of Cold Spring Lane ties up traffic. (Baltimore Sun photo by Jed Kirschbaum)

By the first day of 2022, two speed cameras are scheduled to be installed along the Jones Falls Expressway in Baltimore to capture images of the many ridiculous motorists who regularly drive 20 to 30 miles an hour over the posted speed limit on one of the worst interstate highways ever built.

Good thing, too, but it raises the question: Why has this taken so long?

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Besides the fact that we drivers despise them — not much of an excuse, if you ask me — is there any reason for not having speed cameras all over highways?

Technology is supposed to make life more efficient, more convenient, healthier and safer. And yet, there’s this widespread resentment of automated speed enforcement, even after the technology has proven effective at reducing crashes and injury.

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A lot of people still regard the cameras as revenue-grabbing machines for local governments.

But let’s be honest. We hate them because we hate getting caught going 12 miles an hour over the posted limit; the figure that now triggers a ticket. (On the JFX, the speeds run much higher than that.)

Another thing: Most people would probably agree that police, particularly locals, have more important things to do besides speed enforcement, especially in municipalities with chronic crime problems. Plus, traffic stops are one of the leading causes of tense and unpleasant interactions between police and citizens. So why do we continue to put ourselves in that situation when there’s technology available to avoid it?

Of course, I have to quickly add something I came here to say: Police appear to have pulled back from speed enforcement. That’s just the way I see it — merely a perception — but it’s also the consensus view from my discussions with several other Maryland drivers.

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Except for the occasional sighting of dutiful state troopers on some stretches of Maryland highways, I no longer see police enforcing speed limits anywhere. That’s particularly true of the JFX.

And the speed on the JFX is nuts. It is out of control.

I am no highway wuss. I have been driving for 50 years, escaped injury in two crashes and paid my share of speeding fines. I have never seen super-speeding and dangerous maneuvering as I have over the last two years on the JFX, and particularly the last few months.

It’s not merely unsafe. The speeding creates a dark sense of lawlessness, with arrogant drivers taking huge risks with their lives and those of others. A recent study for the city concluded that the crash rate on the ill-designed JFX is more than twice that of comparable highways, a fact that seems not to have fazed — and might even excite — the speeders who regularly use it.

I suspect that JFX drivers have a speeding hangover from the pandemic, when there were fewer cars and trucks on the road and speed increased. While Americans drove some 430 billion fewer miles in 2020 due to the pandemic, motor vehicle deaths increased. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s most recent estimate, published in June, nearly 39,000 people died in motor vehicle traffic crashes last year. That’s the largest number of fatalities since 2007.

The NHTSA says the leading causes were impaired driving and speeding.

Motorists will activate warp drive when they think they won’t get caught.

That appears to be what’s happened on the JFX. I have seen cars doing up to 100 mph out there, my calculations based on how quickly they disappear from sight while I’m doing 60 or so. (The top speed limit on much of the JFX is 50 or 55.)

Recently, while I was driving southbound, approaching the 28th Street off-ramp, a guy in a compact car rocketed past me on the gritty right shoulder and cut in front, across the ramp and across two lanes to the left before racing out of sight in seconds.

This is not just a city phenomenon, either. The speed on the Baltimore County portions of the JFX, between the city line and Hunt Valley, is shocking. On Monday, I saw a car — I think a Mustang — zip through traffic near Timonium in a spurt of speed that easily hit 90.

And I can’t recall the last time I saw a law enforcement presence out there. (The JFX from the city line north and the 695 Beltway are primarily the responsibility of state police.)

So why not more cameras?

Just put them out there, on the overpasses or sidings, and set the bar for a fine at, say, a generous 15 mph above the speed limit.

The city experiment on I-83 is scheduled to start Jan. 1. At least 90 days before that, the city will be warning everyone about the JFX cameras, according to Kathy Dominick of the Department of Transportation.

And the authorizing law, passed this year by the Maryland General Assembly, requires more softening of the blow.

It calls for speeders to be issued warnings, and not the usual $40 citations — isn’t that nice? — for infractions that occur during the first 90 days of operation. And the city will have to put up warning signs along the winding highway as well as a real-time display of drivers’ speeds.

It shows again how frustratingly deferential or weak some politicians can be when it comes to supporting unpopular things (face masks, vaccinations, speed cameras) that save lives.

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