As cameras snap red-light runners, some more cautious at intersections

City police estimate 15 percent drop in violations at 6 sites

May 21, 1999|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

The stack of 338 citations piled on a table before Sgt. William Edgar is one early measure of Baltimore's latest weapon against red-light runners.

The results of a few days' worth of snapshots, each page bears a trio of color photos displaying all but unmistakable proof of a car running a red light. The date of the offense, time, speed and car owner's name are there, too.

Since automated cameras began clicking at six of the city's most dangerous intersections in mid-February, Edgar and other officers have signed more than 5,000 of these tickets, compared with 23,000 for the entire city last year.

They expect it will take about six months for the message to really start sinking in. But at some intersections -- Cooks Lane and Edmondson Avenue, for example -- motorists already appear to be driving more cautiously, officers say.

In the first week of March, almost 300 red-light violators were photographed at that spot. Two months later, the weekly total had dropped by about half. Day or night, rain or shine, the shutter never sleeps, as drivers are learning.

"What has happened in other cities with the cameras is already happening here: the numbers are starting to go down," says Lt. Carl Gutberlet, commander of the city police traffic division.

The numbers of red-light violators also appear to be on the decline at two other intersections among the six with cameras, Eastern Avenue and Kane Street and Edmondson Avenue and Hilton Parkway. At the other three intersections, results have varied week to week.

So far, officials estimate the overall drop in violations is about 15 percent since the program began. Work began this week to install the next five of as many as 40 cameras.

Sitting behind a two-inch stack of tickets this week, Sgt. Edgar inspected them one by one, signing at a rate of about one every 10 seconds. "It's not too often that I reject one of these -- maybe two or three in a stack like this," he says. The photos include a close-up of each car's rear license plate, evidence that is tough to deny.

"Sometimes I may reject it, say if there's mud on the license plate and I can't read it," Edgar says.

The first contested case will go to court early next month.

But, if the patterns in other cities are repeated here, more than 90 percent of motorists whose cars have been photographed will just pay the $75 fine. Maybe they should even consider themselves lucky: If an officer, instead of a camera, had caught them, it would mean a $120 fine and points on their driving record.

The citations that go out are the legal equivalent of parking tickets. Fines are issued to vehicles' owners (drivers are not identifiable in the photographs.)

Officials at Lockheed Martin IMS, which installs the equipment and manages the system, say if Baltimore motorists respond as those in other cities have, red-light running at intersections with cameras could decline by as much as 25 to 50 percent. Officials in Charlotte, N.C., say their system led to an average drop of about 70 percent in six months at intersections with cameras.

Studies also suggest a ripple effect, leading to safer driving at nearby intersections without cameras. "People don't drive around and see a yellow light and quickly think this is an enforcement site," says Dana King, of Lockheed's photo enforcement group. "They think, `There are cameras around, I better slow down.' "

In Howard County, which installed a similar system last year, violations at intersections with cameras have dropped by 53 percent. "The results are pretty dramatic," says Lt. Glenn Hansen, of the Howard County Police Department. "There's a definite financial plus in terms of efficiency too. Manpower alone was costing us more than $25 for each citation."

Similar systems are in the works for Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Montgomery counties. Lockheed predicts that the 42 cities in North America currently using such cameras will be joined by hundreds in the next two or three years.

Under Baltimore's agreement with Lockheed, the company gets as much as 36 percent of each ticket paid, or $27; the percentage drops -- to a low of 15 percent -- as the number of tickets increases.

That arrangement has triggered criticism from the American Automobile Association, which believes it is a conflict of interest. "The goal of the cameras is to prevent motorists from running red lights, not making money," says Myra Wieman, of the group's mid-Atlantic office. AAA has asked officials in Washington to abandon their plans for a system and are considering making a similar request in Baltimore.

City officials estimate the system could bring in about $1 million in its first year.

"Safety is the goal," says Kurt Kocher, spokesman for the public works department. "This is like any other contract for a product or service. They [Lockheed] absorb the cost -- we don't pay for equipment or personnel. I don't know where you would find fault with this arrangement."

In the next few weeks, cameras will be installed at Russell and Hamburg streets, Orleans and Gay streets, Light and Pratt streets, and I-83 at Fayette Street -- the intersection in front of police headquarters.

Lockheed's traffic analysts were quickly convinced of the need for the camera there. No sooner had they set up their video equipment for researching traffic patterns than a clear picture began to emerge.

"In the first 10 minutes we had five runners," says Matthew Hopwood, Lockheed's project administrator. "It was rather surprising. One person literally ran the light 10 seconds after it turned. This car wasn't even braking. I can't justify what some of these people are thinking."

Adds Lt. Gutberlet, commander of the department's traffic division: "Baltimore has a reputation among motorists -- you don't drive through a green light without stopping and counting to five.

"We know we have a real problem here, and this has become a real priority."

Pub Date: 5/21/99

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