What do 42% of drivers do on the JFX? Hint: It’s not safe | COMMENTARY

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Police officers are on the Jones Falls Expressway just south of the 41st Street overpass after an officer was hit by a car and thrown off the elevated highway in 2011. It is a section of highway regarded as too dangerous for officers to pull over speeders. (Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore Sun).

Last spring, city workers placed a data collection camera at the 41st Street overpass on the southbound lane of the Jones Falls Expressway for one week. What they discovered was stunning — although perhaps not to anyone who has driven the highway during the COVID-19 pandemic. Of the 360,984 vehicles traveling along the highway between the hours of 6 a.m. and 8 p.m., 151,897, or 42%, were going at least 12 miles per hour above the posted 50 mph speed. The top speed recorded: a mind-blowing 173 mph, which is fast even by NASCAR racing standards. Reduced traffic congestion and an apparent lack of driver caution related to these otherwise restrictive times has fueled an epidemic of speeding that is hardly limited to one 10.2-mile-long section of interstate.

Recently, the Maryland General Assembly gave the city the authority to install two automated speed cameras along the JFX to help address this problem. Motorists will first be given fair warning. The city will initially have to post an electronic sign with speed sensor notifying them of their speed (presumably in case they never look at their speedometers). And once installed, the actual enforcement cameras will result in written warnings for the first 90 days. After that, anyone going 12 mph too fast will be slapped with a $40 ticket, the revenue going to pay for the operation of the devices and then to traffic safety improvements on the road. None of the revenue will go to other city expenses (or displace money that was destined for those JFX safety upgrades or otherwise benefit the city coffers). Rarely in law enforcement are violators treated with a more velvet hand or revenue more restricted. Parking in a handicap spot in Baltimore carries a fine more than 10 times as large.


We get it. People see speed cameras as a revenue-generating nuisance and speeding generally as their right. And in the case of Baltimore, it has surely not helped that early efforts at automated enforcement proved disastrous when a poorly monitored contractor issued tickets for speeding by vehicles that were later proven not to have been. Nevertheless, there really ought to be more public alarm over what’s been happening on the highways this past year. Speeding needs to be taken seriously. It’s a major contributor to crashes and especially to high-speed collisions that result in fatal injury — and not just to drivers at fault. And it’s why the two latest speed enforcement cameras will bring the city’s total number of automated devices monitoring speed and red light running to more than 320.

Last year, despite a major drop in vehicle miles traveled (mostly because of fewer cars on the roads during the pandemic), U.S. traffic deaths rose to the highest of the century. In all, authorities estimate that at least 42,000 Americans died in crashes last year, an 8% increase from 2019. Maryland followed that trend with 568 deaths last year compared to 534 in 2019. How could that happen the same year that total vehicle miles driven declined 13% nationwide? The short answer: speed and aggressive driving. What happened on the JFX is happening on other U.S. roads. People are treating highways more like the Daytona Speedway and less like public thoroughfares where lives can be lost in a fraction of a second. Perhaps compared to 570,000 lives lost to COVID-19, 42,000 seems small but it’s roughly the population of Catonsville and enough to nearly crack the top 10 causes of death in the U.S.


Public education campaigns are helpful but clearly not enough. Enforcement is key. And speed cameras have proven their mettle over and over again, not only in encouraging people to slow down but in doing so without taking police from other duties. The Maryland SafeZones campaign, for example, which sets up automated speed enforcement in work zones has seen a dramatic decrease in speeding at those locations. In July 2010, such cameras caught about 7% of vehicles in violation. As of last October, it was down to less than 1%. But, alas, the devices are in fixed locations. Drivers slow down in work areas, which is great given the risks posed to construction crews, but not necessarily as they travel beyond.

Under the circumstances, speed cameras on the JFX aren’t about revenue. They aren’t about Big Brother. What they are about is nothing short of saving lives. Baltimore officials believe last year’s speeding on that one, relatively short stretch of Interstate 83 within the city limits had lasting consequences — perhaps two more fatalities than the Jones Falls would normally have seen. Those who complain about the nuisance of $40 ticket should be required to first listen to the stories of the grieving friends and family of crash victims. It might just save their lives.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.