'Smile, you're on scofflaw camera' Eye in the sky: Cameras recording red-light runners may put the brakes on violations.

December 12, 1996

MOTORISTS OTHERWISE inclined to take the last nanosecond of a yellow light are likely to do the right thing and stop when a police cruiser is sitting at the intersection. But police cars can't be on every corner. So the next best thing might be a plan to mount cameras on poles at selected intersections to photograph vehicles that run red lights -- one of the most perilous traffic hazards imaginable.

This is the experimental approach that officials in Howard County are taking to a serious traffic problem -- a response that may spread elsewhere in Maryland and has already enjoyed success in New York City.

The initial reaction to this technology might be government intrusion. Connotations of "Big Brother" may surface. But such concerns seem misplaced. Unlike hiding recording devices in private homes, these cameras record only what anyone else with a view of an intersection can see. Just as cameras in bank branches do. Similarly, Baltimore police are now using cameras as a crime deterrent downtown.

Improving safety on roadways is a good reason to embrace this technology. Last year, drivers running red lights were responsible for 34 deaths and 4,256 injuries. Last year, "fail to obey" violations at traffic signals caused 841 accidents in the city, 443 in Baltimore County and 109 in Harford. An electronic cop on the corner might reduce such aggressiveness.

At this experimental stage, cameras placed at designated sites snap pictures of cars in rapid succession. -- first as they approach the intersection and then when they reach the middle of the intersection. Photographs showing a red light and the vehicle in both frames indicate a clear violation (assuming that provisions are made for flashing red signals).

For now, Howard County police are sending notices to owners of the offending vehicles. The hope is that state legislators will allow officials to treat the violations like parking tickets. The county would impose $100 fines but would not assess points on the owner's driving record; drivers would not be cited because their faces would not be photographed.

If there are concerns about intrusion, the General Assembly must balance them against the need to confront, in a cost-effective manner, a traffic problem that is dangerous and deadly.

Pub Date: 12/12/96

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