Howard police praise traffic-light cameras Photographing violators aids enforcement, says Chief Livesay

August 07, 1998|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,SUN STAFF

OCEAN CITY -- Drivers running red lights in Howard County were rarely caught until the county started using automated cameras, Howard's police chief told delegates attending the Maryland Association of Counties convention here yesterday.

The Police Department changed its primary mission from criminal enforcement about four or five years ago "because the number of traffic fatalities was increasing year by year," Chief G. Wayne Livesay said.

The county has few murders but averages about 15 traffic fatalities each year, he said.

"If you're dead, you're dead," he said. "It doesn't matter how you died."

The clincher, leading to the county's focus on traffic, Livesay told delegates attending a seminar on how to curb road rage, came when a dump truck ran a red light on one of the county's main thoroughfares and killed the mother of a small child.

The county tried to solve its red-light problem in several ways -- stationing marked and unmarked cars at intersections and using helicopters, for example -- but none proved successful, he said.

It was a "dangerous scenario, chasing people through red lights," Livesay said.

And it turned out to be "economically inefficient to use helicopters," he said.

The change to automated cameras that photograph the license plate when a vehicle runs a red light did not come easily.

The state legislature rejected the idea when it was first proposed.

"The biggest resistance was the fear of 'Big Brother,' " because to issue a traffic ticket in Maryland, police had to identify the driver, Livesay said.

Opponents of the program did not want cameras photographing the occupants of vehicles, he said.

"But we didn't give up. We found that we could issue a ticket for running a red light the same way as we issue parking tickets -- issue them to the owner of the car," he said.

Only the car and the license plate are photographed, not the occupants. The fine for running the light is $75. No points are given for a violation, and the car owner's insurance company is not notified.

Eighty-seven percent of those who are issued citations after their car is photographed running a red light pay the fine, Livesay said.

Livesay seemed to be drumming up business for the camera idea to cut costs and increase revenues.

The commercial vendors who run Howard's program were in the audience to answer questions, Livesay said. He provided a handout telling officials in other jurisdictions that "the potential savings that can be realized by your taxpayers is quite significant."

A county that issued 4,260 red-light citations in a year would net $883,185, the handout indicated.

Graham Norton, director of public works and transportation in Montgomery County, said camera monitoring in Montgomery has been delayed until fall because some agencies learned of the project late, he said. He expects to have cameras at 10 Montgomery intersections in the fall, he said.

Everyone is guilty of "aggressive driving," Norton said. He asked members of the audience to silently acknowledge whether they speed up five minutes after slowing near a police car.

"We think we have the right to drive in a manner we think appropriate anywhere or any time," he said of drivers during the seminar. "We can't make a road safe for every contingency. We have to look hard at who is on the road."

Norton said, for example, that 16-year-old drivers should not be allowed to have young passengers. He was not allowed to drive or carry passengers until he was 18, he said.

Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker, who was the panel's moderator, asked whether the elimination of driver-education programs in many schools has worsened the "road rage" problem.

Livesay said no, because "driving ed teaches people to pass the test. It doesn't teach them to drive."

State Police Superintendent David B. Mitchell said his officers have been receiving "a lot of co- operation in traffic court" when dealing with road rage. First offenders may be dealt with leniently, but repeaters will be treated as harshly as the law allows, he said.

Pub Date: 8/07/98

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