Arundel police turn to cameras in fight against red-light runners

Program will begin with monitoring at six intersections

June 08, 2000|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

There will be no roadside debates about whether running that red light warrants a ticket or just a warning, nor any deliberations about the exact shade of red it was when it happened.

With Anne Arundel's new automatic red-light enforcement program, the photographs of violators will be quietly taken and tickets with the photo proof mailed days later.

Drivers who receive photographs of their cars in the mail will be able to appeal the civil offense that carries a $75 fine but no points or insurance notification. Police doubt, though, they'll get many disputes as they phase in the program being used in Baltimore City, Baltimore County, Howard County and several other nearby jurisdictions.

"It's pretty compelling evidence," said Anne Arundel police Lt. Mark Morgan.

The county's first red-light camera will be operational beginning today at the intersection of Riva Road and Route 665. For the first two weeks, however, only warnings will be issued, Morgan said.

The digital camera, which is activated a split second after the light turns red, photographs the car at the beginning of the intersection, as it passes through, and then focuses on the license plate as the car leaves the intersection.

By noting the time, the camera also can determine how fast the car was traveling, Morgan said, although speeding tickets will not be issued.

Anne Arundel Police Chief P. Thomas Shanahan said the camera program is more effective than stationing police officers at problem intersections.

"It's a prevention tool we hope will eventually deter people from running red lights," he said.

If it mirrors success rates where the red-light cameras are already used, Shanahan said, the county can expect a large decrease in accidents caused by drivers running red lights.

In Howard County, police noted a 53 percent drop in red-light violations at intersections with the cameras.

But there has also been some criticism of the program, where drivers noted they've been ticketed for stopping just barely into the intersection or because another driver triggered the camera. And in March, a Baltimore City attorney filed a federal appeal of a ticket he received from a red-light camera, challenging the legality of the statute he says places the burden of proof on citizens.

The use of the cameras has also come under fire in other states where they took pictures of the car, capturing both the faces of drivers and passengers - an angle that is not photographed by police in Anne Arundel County.

"It's not Big Brother spying on you behind the bushes," Shanahan said.

"It's a pretty public effort."

He and County Executive Janet S. Owens, flanked by Lockheed representatives and traffic safety officers, are expected to stand at Riva Road and Route 665 this morning to announce the use of the cameras.

The camera locations will also be published on the county police Web site, Morgan said.

The new equipment and maintenance associated with it will be paid for by fines, police said. The vendor, Lockheed Martin IMS, will receive $23 of each $75 violation.

"This way, it's the violators who are paying for this," Morgan said. In Baltimore County, the red-light violations generate more than $4 million in revenue.

Although the five-year contract with Lockheed includes six cameras to start, police say they hope to increase the number. "This is just the beginning," Shanahan said.

Initially, 40 intersections were identified as problem areas by district command staff. But using accident statistics and video monitoring to determine the highest violation areas, the number of camera sites was cut to six for the initial phase of the program, Morgan said.

During the random video monitoring of the intersections during rush hours in March, 31 red light runners were taped at the intersection of Route 2 and College Parkway; 21 at Route 2 and Arnold Road; 23 at Route 2 and Route 10, Morgan said. And at Riva Road and Route 665, there were more than 60.

According to county police accident records, the intersections were also the sites of multiple serious accidents.

At Riva Road and Route 665, there were 28 crashes last year, and there have been 20 this year. At Route 2 and College Parkway, there were 21 accidents last year and 18 this year, not including those handled by state police troopers or minor incidents in which police were not called, Morgan said.

By mid-July, cameras should be operational at all six intersections, he said. They may also be moved to other problem areas.

Violators will have 45 days to pay the fine or request a court date. After that, a second notice will be issued and then vehicle registrations will be suspended, police said.

Officer-witnessed red light violations carry a $120 fine and one point on the driver's record, Morgan said. Because the camera-generated violations are civil complaints, they are similar to a parking ticket, leaving the registered owner responsible for the fine, regardless of who was driving.

Drivers will see the camera flash in their rear-view mirrors on cloudy days, and it is noticeable at night, according to Morgan.

"But it won't distort your vision. The flash is above you," he said. "We've taken all the safety precautions."

An officer will review the photographs to ensure each violation is reviewed for its merits, Morgan said. That way, he said, mistakes such as those caused by bad weather or a dysfunctional light can be weeded out.

Violations are matched with MVA registrations, and Lockheed issues the ticket, in most cases within 10 days, Morgan said.

State law requires drivers to inform the MVA of address changes, but some drivers who have not complied may find they owe money for a red light violation when they renew their vehicle registrations.

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