Public Safety Boon or Eye in the Sky?

Public Safety Boon or Eye in the Sky?

Legislature overrides Ehrlich's veto, allowing speed-monitoring cameras on some Montgomery County roads.

Supporters of a four-year effort to curtail speeding in residential neighborhoods are smiling this week. Speeders will soon be smiling too — for the camera.

The Maryland General Assembly voted last week to override Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s veto of legislation that will allow the use of cameras for speed limit enforcement in Montgomery County.

“This is going to help us restore some safety and civility on our streets,” said Del. Bill Bronrott (D-16), chief sponsor of the speed camera legislation. He said the veto override “had a lot more to do with public safety than politics.”

Bronrott, who represents Potomac, chaired a blue-ribbon panel on pedestrian and traffic safety in 2002 and said the speed camera legislation was the panel’s top recommendation.

A bill to allow cameras statewide failed in 2003, but Bronrott returned last year with a bill that only pertains to Montgomery County. It gives Montgomery County Police the power to install speed cameras on residential roads and in school zones. Pictures from the cameras would be used to issue tickets to drivers exceeding the speed limit by at least 10 mph on roads with speed limits of 35 mph or less.

Citing privacy concerns and inadequate safeguards for accused speeders, Ehrlich vetoed the bill in May, 2005.

The House of Delegates voted 89-45 in support of the override Jan. 24 and the Senate supported the measure 31-16 on Jan. 25.

“A LOT OF people think that … fatal crashes are occurring [mostly] on our interstates,” Bronrott said, but nine out of 10 speed-related fatal crashes occur on non-interstate roads. Roughly half of those occur on the low-speed residential roads where the cameras will be installed.

Those statistics only reflect the potential public safety benefit to drivers, not pedestrians and bicyclists, Bronrott said.

But opponents of the legislation said that the public safety benefits of speed cameras are unproven. They are in use in only five states, and Virginia recently opted not to reauthorize the use of red light cameras based on a study showing that the use of such cameras increased the risk of accidents, according to Ehrlich’s veto message.

In a section entitled “Trial By Camera,” the governor said that the bill lowers the burden of proof normally associated with a criminal violation and “abridges the right to confront the witnesses against the accused,” a concern opponents also cited during floor debate on the bill.

Citations from the speed cameras will carry a $40 fine but no points on one’s driver’s license. That’s partly because they are automatically mailed to the registered owner of the car — who may not have been the speeding driver. The citations can be contested in court, and judges may order the police to transfer the citation to someone other than the owner of the car.

Ehrlich also called the effort “another step toward the pervasive use of cameras by the government to monitor and regulate the conduct of its people” saying that such monitoring is only appropriate under “extraordinary circumstances.”

Bronrott scoffed at that claim. Ehrlich has supported the use of cameras to catch toll violators at E-ZPass plazas.

“My question is … What is a greater public safety threat: Blowing through a toll plaza or causing serious bodily injury or death on the streets of our neighborhoods?” Bronrott asked.

Regardless, approval of the measure was a matter of “local courtesy” he said, since the measure had broad support in Montgomery County, the only place it would apply.

All eight of the county’s senators voted for the veto override, along with 22 of 24 delegates, including Jean Cryor (R-15), the lone Republican.

Del. Anne Kaiser (D-14) opposed the override and Del. Herman Taylor (D-14) was absent for the vote.

THE LEGISLATION takes effect in 30 days, but it will likely be a year or more before cameras are actually used to issue tickets.

The police first need to secure funding to purchase cameras, contact vendors, and develop protocols for the cameras’ placement and use.

“It’s something that we can’t rush into quickly,” said Officer Derek Baliles, a police spokesman. “A great deal of research goes into where they can be most effectively placed.”

The police went through a similar process after the legislature approved the use of cameras to catch red-light violators beginning in 1997. The police department's Automated Enforcement Section, which administers the red light camera program, will develop plans for the speed cameras.

Baliles said that the red light program has been effective, with violations dropping off at the intersections with cameras. “People are beginning to recognize them,” Baliles said, and that’s a good thing.

“It has been accused of being a cash cow, something that is wanted just for a source of revenue. That’s not our goal,” he said. “The goal is never to have that camera go off. The goal is 100 percent compliance.”

In 2004, the 37 red light cameras in Montgomery County produced 64,330 citations, an average of about 5 citations per camera per day.

The fiscal note attached to the speed camera predicts expenditures $4.6 million and revenues of $6.3 million in connection with the speed cameras in fiscal year 2006.