Red light cameras may not tell whole truth


September 06, 1998|By Harold Jackson

IT'S STILL hard to believe it happened. I got caught running a red light by one of Howard County's new intersection cameras. Surely you've heard about them, or at least noticed the rather odd camera road signs now posted along certain routes.

I've known about the cameras for more than a year. One of the first installed was put up at the intersection of Broken Land Parkway and Stephens Forest Road. I travel that way daily.

Since I was aware of the county's red light camera program, I never thought I would become one of its involuntary participants. I tried hard enough to avoid it.

But it happened, at the other end of Broken Land Parkway, at the busier intersection with Snowden River Parkway, where traffic swells toward the entrance ramps for Interstate 95 and Route 32.

Had to be fate

It was shortly before 8 a.m. I was taking my daughter to Baltimore for a summer science program. As fate would have it, I found myself behind a huge 18-wheeler; not a "wide load," but close.

As we approached the intersection, I realized the big rig was blocking my line of sight. I couldn't see the two traffic lights directing the lane I was in. I slowed my car to a crawl, hoping to create enough distance between me and the truck so that I could see above or around it.

As soon as I entered the intersection, I noticed that the cars to my left and right were no longer with me. In the sunlight I couldn't tell whether a camera bulb went off. But my daughter, whose head had been buried in a book, said there was a flash.

I rarely curse, and never in front of my children, but a few choice words about the driver of the tractor-trailer entered my mind.

The more I thought about it, though, I realized it wasn't his fault that the traffic signals weren't placed higher or wider apart so motorists behind his truck could see.

Besides, maybe I didn't run the light. Maybe it was yellow when I went through. Maybe my kid only thought she saw a flash.

My wishful thinking ended about two weeks later when I received a citation in the mail accompanied by dated photographs showing my car being driven through a red light.

I could mail back a $75 fine or request a hearing. I decided to tell my story to a judge. My court date was Aug. 28, two months after the alleged crime occurred.

There's not a lot to say about traffic court. I arrived nearly an hour before it began. District Judge Neil Edward Axel went through the regular docket before getting to the red-light cases.

I had been in the courthouse about three hours before he finally got around to me.

I nervously pleaded "not guilty" and thus had to be sworn in, as anything else I said would be considered testimony. I said that to be guilty of running a red light you have to be able to see it, and I couldn't. I then explained the circumstances that day.

There was no prosecutor, but the police officer presenting the county's evidence maintained that the traffic signals met proper specifications and that traveling too close to a vehicle was not a valid excuse for running a red light.

I wanted a chance for rebuttal, but Judge Axel said that wasn't allowed. He then said the law does require a traffic device to be visible and that the burden is on the state to prove that it is.

Since the county's own photos showed my car behind the 18-wheeler, and there was no evidence to refute my assertion that the truck blocked my sight of the traffic signals, I was found not guilty.

I thanked the judge and hustled out of that courtroom like a Death Row inmate who didn't want the governor to think too long about that pardon he had just granted.

Need more cameras

Even had I lost my case, I would support the red light camera program. Other jurisdictions considering similar programs should do it. I've seen too many Maryland drivers speed through traffic signals. The carnage that too often results from their stupidity cannot be ignored.

Lt. Glenn Hansen, who runs Howard's program, says it will have cameras at 20 intersections by November. The county stopped issuing warnings in February. Since then, it has issued more than 5,900 citations and collected $330,000 in fines. At that rate, the program will soon pay for itself.

Lt. Hansen says citations are issued in only about 40 percent of the instances when a red-light camera is triggered.

Officials review the photos to make sure there are no visible mitigating circumstances. They also have to be able to clearly see the car's license plate.

Only about 2 percent of the persons who receive citations take their cases to court. The evidence is usually irrefutable, and the civil action isn't going to be reported to your insurance company.

VTC I went to court because I wanted the county to know it has some traffic signals that may need to be repositioned. I also went because in more than 25 years as a licensed driver I had never received a traffic ticket. It's a record I wanted to keep.

Harold Jackson writes editorials about Howard County for The Sun.

Pub Date: 9/06/98

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