Region's red-light cameras pay off

Officials say devices generate revenue, reduce violations

January 28, 2001|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

Three years after the region's first red-light cameras went up, criticisms about Big Brother-style intrusion have quieted, and the cameras appear to be earning their keep in convincing fashion.

In Howard County, a report due out next month will show that accidents involving injuries caused by red-light runners have dropped from 21 to 12, a decrease of 43 percent -- about twice the decline police had expected.

Although Baltimore and Baltimore County haven't had the cameras in place long enough to complete meaningful studies, police in both jurisdictions say they've noticed changes in the habits of drivers.

"The year before we installed the cameras, we had seven fatalities in Baltimore County specifically related to red-light running. Last year we had zero," said Lt. Minda Foxwell, who oversees the county's program. "If that's any indication, we're getting somewhere."

Receiving a color photograph in the mail -- ironclad proof of a car going through a red light at a specific time and date -- can be irritating, chilling and humbling, as scores of letters from motorists reveal.

Per- suasive, too.

One Baltimore man wrote to say he had opposed the cameras from the start and considered them an intrusion into the lives of citizens -- until the day he received a picture in the mail. From it, he deduced two things: He knew from the date and time his daughter had run a red light. And he knew from the direction the car was headed that she was skipping school.

His privacy concerns evaporated. "I now recant my statement," he wrote. "This student no longer has access to my car, nor a key to it."

A Pennsylvania woman enclosed a note of apology with a check to pay her fine. "I think this camera thing is really great," she wrote. "Here's $75 towards another one!"

Drivers thinking twice

The correspondence sometimes is testimony to the cameras' power to make drivers think twice.

"I've decided that my strategy of speeding up in order to clear the intersection and avoid an ... accident is more expensive than stopping as soon as I see the yellow light," wrote one motorist.

In Baltimore County, citations at intersections with cameras have dropped steadily since May. The cameras have brought in $2.1 million in fines.

The 2-year-old system in Baltimore has added $6 million to the city's general fund, and red-light violations at camera-equipped intersections have declined by almost half.

"We are overwhelmed and pleasantly surprised with the amount of decrease in Baltimore," said Frank Harrison, regional program manager for Lockheed-IMS, which installs and maintains the city's cameras. In most cities, the violations drop by about one-third, he said.

"The citizens in Baltimore are clearly taking the program seriously."

A total of 79 cameras have been operating for a year or more in the Baltimore area.

The city plans to add 10, and Howard County expects five more to go up this year.

Few of the tickets are challenged in court. Since Howard County installed the cameras in early 1998, more than 70,000 tickets have gone out, and 4 percent have been contested.

"By and large, most people feel they're caught when they see that photo in front of them," said Lt. Glenn Hansen of the Howard County Police Department. The county has taken in more than $4 million in fines.

Problem in Washington

Not that there isn't potential for problems. Look no further than the traffic ticket fiasco that emerged last year in Washington.

A poorly placed camera at a downtown intersection snapped pictures so indiscriminately that at one point it was generating $10,000 a day in fines. Protests mounted fast, and police eventually dismissed the fines.

So far, nothing like that has surfaced here. A few glitches -- cars photographed while being waved through a red light during a funeral procession or sports event traffic -- occur occasionally, but police say they can usually verify the circumstances and drop the ticket.

Mid-Atlantic AAA's Myra Wieman said a few callers have complained about cameras that take pictures prematurely, and the organization has investigated. Federal standards say the yellow light must be displayed at least three seconds, giving a car sufficient time to get through an intersection, before a picture is snapped.

"Of the cases we've decided to pursue, we haven't found any [yellow lights] shorter than the three seconds," Wieman said.

Financial gain

"Our bigger concern is that a contractor may be more interested in the financial gain as opposed to the safety value," she said. "We are in full support of cameras; we just want to make sure they're placed in areas and managed appropriately to reduce red-light running."

The contractor's share of the ticket revenue varies by jurisdiction, but in Baltimore, Lockheed earns between 15 percent and 36 percent of the $75 ticket. The more tickets issued, the smaller Lockheed's cut.

In coming weeks, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety will release one of the first studies done in the nation on the effects of red-light cameras.

Although exact measures are still being taken, the group is unequivocal about the impression the cameras make on drivers.

"We see a very rapid change in how people behave," said Richard Retting, the group's senior transportation engineer. "When that light turns red, it's simply a bad decision that people are beginning to rethink, knowing there's a price they might pay."

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