Crackdown helps drivers see the light Traffic enforcement: After issuing thousands of tickets, Baltimore officers say stoplight running remains a going concern.

April 10, 1996|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Speeding eight blocks through crowded Pratt Street, Officer Gary O. Green caught up to a Plymouth Voyager that had shot a red light at Market Place -- and heard an all-too-familiar excuse from the driver.

"It was yellow when I went through," the Annapolis woman told the officer, who has "GO GREEN" proudly displayed on his name tag. "I saw it."

Baltimore police launched a crackdown on red-light crashers in January. In the first three months of this year, they have cited 4,283 people -- nearly four times the number of tickets written during the same period in 1994.

"For some reason, we have more red-light violations than ever before," Officer Green said. "You can go anywhere downtown and you will see someone go through a red light. People are creatures of habit and they have very strange driving ways."

The officer, not one to banter with traffic scofflaws, simply took the Annapolis woman's license and registration and wrote her a ticket. "You can get into a debate with these people," he said. "But it's fruitless. The less I say, the better. You think she's upset now, wait till she sees the fine is $115."

The problem isn't confined to Baltimore, though state police and traffic engineers say the city has the biggest problem because of drivers frustrated by congested streets.

After a fatal accident in April 1993 at Route 175 and Thunder Hill Road in Columbia, Oakland Mills resident Sharon Gooden launched a solo campaign to stop motorists from running red lights.

Her activism spurred a new state program to detect red-light runners by helicopter and small planes. But efforts in some areas to install cameras on traffic signals -- to snap photos of cars in the intersection after the light has turned red -- have failed.

New York City has a pilot program with hidden cameras, and in one month alone, used the device to cite more than 7,000 drivers at 15 intersections. But a bill to start a similar program in Baltimore was shot down last month by the House of Delegates.

"It seems to be one of the leading accident causes," said Del. Sheila Hixson, a Montgomery Democrat, referring to red-light violations.

"The opponents killed it as an invasion of privacy and 'Big Brother.' We thought that for the health and safety of others, we were doing the right thing," she said.

An opponent of the bill, Del. Nathaniel T. Oaks, a Baltimore Democrat, said cameras taking pictures of cars and having tickets mailed to the owner "is the first step toward Big Brother watching you."

He also said the practice would shift the burden of proof to the accused, who would have to prove they were not driving the car.

"I don't want to give law enforcement one more tool to come after me," he said.

The State Highway Administration says that about 20 people die each year in car accidents attributed to red-light violations.

In 1994, 2,246 people were injured in such crashes, down from the 3,190 injured the previous year.

The Maryland Department of Transportation lists the state's most dangerous intersections, led by one in Prince George's County at state Route 210 and Kirby Hill Road, where 13 crashes occurred in 1994.

Several in Baltimore County make the list, including York and Padonia roads with 11 accidents, and Merritt Boulevard and German Hill Road with 10 crashes.

Trouble spots

Baltimore City police were unable to list their most accident-prone intersections. But they have a voluminous pile of statistics from police districts where red-light violations have occurred.

In the Northeast, oft-cited intersections include Belair and Erdman, Moravia and Mannasota, and Cold Spring and Hillen. On the west side, the intersections are Carey and Edmondson, Franklin and Pulaski, and North and Fulton. Downtown, the worst are Lombard and Gay, Lombard and Light, Pratt and President, and St. Paul and Mount Royal.

Joseph Goss, who has been directing traffic at Howard and Lombard streets for six years, says the driving habits of Baltimore drivers have grown worse.

The 32-year-old traffic enforcement officer said he has learned "that 65 percent of the drivers can't drive."

Stopovers

But Mr. Goss, a Department of Public Works employee, said that "most of the drivers going through the red lights are not from Maryland."

"They say, 'I'm not from this town.' I'm like, 'Well, the signs and traffic lights are pretty much universal. They're not pink and purple in other states.' "

On one recent afternoon, Officer Green wrote seven red-light citations to drivers from Owings Mills, Ellicott City, Annapolis and Sykesville. Another day, in just two hours, he stopped two drivers from Virginia and one from Delaware.

One of Officer Green's favorite spots is on Gay Street, watching cars go west on Lombard Street. He recommends that drivers traveling north on Gay pause when their light turns green. "I would not dash out here," he said. "They are flying."

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