Lights, camera, gotcha! Traffic: Police and government officials are launching an effort to use cameras to catch red light violators. A legislative battle is foreseen.

November 13, 1996|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,SUN STAFF

Tired of dodging cars that run red lights? So are local officials, and they have a plan to capture more of those dangerous motorists -- on film.

Police and government officials launched a public campaign yesterday for the right to use the latest technology against red light runners in Maryland -- cameras mounted at traffic signals.

At a packed hearing in Annapolis, they urged state delegates to give them the power to install the cameras, which photograph the rear tags of cars that deliberately sail through red lights.

Supporters know the battle will be tough. The General Assembly killed similar legislation last winter amid complaints of Big Brotherism.

"Some of the attorneys viewed it possibly as a threat to their income and, as such, developed many arguments" against it, recalled Baltimore Del. Gerald J. Curran, chairman of the Commerce and Government Matters Committee.

"One argument -- which is absolutely ridiculous -- was that the camera would take a picture of a man or woman in the vehicle and that could ultimately find its way into a divorce proceeding," Curran said.

According to supporters, the cameras would capture license plates, not people, as a vehicle ran a red light.

Police would send a ticket of up to $100 to the vehicle's registered owner. However, the violation would not appear on the owner's driving record and points would not be assessed against his license. "It's tantamount to a parking ticket," Curran said.

Just like a parking ticket, it would not necessarily matter if the owner was the one who actually committed the offense.

Supporters said the cameras will deter the increasingly common practice of red light running, which causes hundreds of city and suburban accidents.

"It's time to save lives," said Kris Hughes, associate director of the Maryland Association of Counties, an alliance of local governments.

The group has made passage of a red light bill one of its top four priorities for the legislative session that begins in January.

About 20 people die each year in traffic accidents blamed on red-light running, the State Highway Administration has reported. In 1994, such violations contributed to more than 7,500 collisions and 611 incapacitating injuries statewide, according to Maryland Automated Accident Reporting System data.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reports that cameras reduced certain types of collisions at intersections in Victoria, Australia, by 32 percent after they were installed in 1983.

New York City also uses such cameras for red light enforcement.

In Baltimore, a business group has paid to install cameras on some city street corners, but police monitor them for other crimes, not traffic offenses.

The Maryland Trial Lawyers Association is neutral on the bill and is considering its position for the 1997 legislative session, said the group's executive director, Janelle Cousino.

The campaign for cameras may get a boost Monday, when Howard County police and government officials unveil a study on red light running in the county. State and Baltimore City officials are expected to attend.

With a state highway grant, the county mounted cameras at intersections to collect data on the problem, said county police Sgt. Glenn A. Hansen.

During the evening rush hour at one intersection on Little Patuxent Parkway in Columbia, officials found, a motorist runs a red light an average of every seven minutes.

Curran said he has an idea that could make it harder for legislative opponents to kill a camera bill. In addition to a statewide measure, he said, legislators could submit similar bills in the General Assembly that would affect their county only.

Such bills are usually passed as a matter of "local courtesy."

In Annapolis yesterday, a spokesman for a motorists group said he hoped the cameras would be used as a true deterrent to dangerous driving, rather than as a way to generate revenue.

Mahlon Anderson of the American Automobile Association's Potomac Division said motorists also should be able to challenge the ticket in court if, for example, their car was stolen.

"We cannot just have a presumption of guilt with no safety valve," he said.

Under a proposal drafted by Howard County officials, the car owner could choose to stand trial for the ticket.

Possible defenses could include having previously reported the vehicle or tags as stolen, being part of a funeral procession, or moving out of the way of an emergency vehicle.

That proposal also says that such tickets may not be considered by insurers in providing car insurance.

A final version of a bill probably will not be drafted and submitted to the General Assembly until after its next session begins in January.

Pub Date: 11/13/96

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