Speeders may smile for camera

Assembly considers plan that would allow use of photo radar

February 06, 2002|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

First came the cameras that photographed and ticketed cars zipping through red lights. Now, speeding drivers in the state could face the same technology.

The General Assembly is considering legislation that would let local police departments set up radar guns and cameras along streets and highways, photographing speeding motorists and sending them tickets through the mail.

As with the red-light cameras, no police officers would need to be present when a motorist's speed is recorded.

"In times of scarce resources, we need to be innovative and creative," said Del. Salima S. Marriott, a Baltimore Democrat who sponsored the legislation. "It's one way we can use technology to redeploy our police officers to street patrols and fighting crime." A similar bill is pending in the Senate.

The O'Malley administration is pushing for the bill, saying it needs to free up Baltimore police to fight violent crime. The idea has also caught on with suburban legislators frustrated by endless complaints about speeding on residential streets.

But the concept outrages some people - and at least one powerful congressman in Washington - who say municipalities across the country are using the cameras as quick money-making schemes at the expense of motorists' rights.

Both sides squared off yesterday at a House Commerce and Government Matters Committee hearing.

"It's an offensive, terrible piece of legislation if someone is concerned about a citizen's rights and liberties," said Bruce C. Bereano, an Annapolis lobbyist who says he has made killing the bill a personal cause this year. "You are being asked to adopt and send to the House floor a technology you have not seen."

The bill would allow jurisdictions to hire a private company to set up and maintain the cameras. The company - often paid based on the number of citations issued - would then review the pictures and decide if the speeding motorists deserve a warning or a fine of not more than $100. Penalty points could not be assessed to a motorist's driving record.

Kenneth L. Blackwell, Baltimore's acting deputy police commissioner, said officials hope to reduce speeding-related accidents with photo radar. There has been a 40 percent reduction in collisions at intersections in the city where red-light cameras have been used, he noted, and Howard County police have reported similar declines.

Howard Police Chief Wayne Livesay told the committee that a test camera installed at a school zone in Elkridge counted 1,404 speeders in a four-hour period.

Critics of the idea, however, noted that the revenue generated from the radar cameras, like the ticket revenue from red-light cameras, would go to the jurisdiction issuing the ticket. Revenue from tickets issued by police officers goes to the state.

"This bill is about money, make no mistake about that," said Bereano, who said he is not being paid to lobby against this bill.

"These programs can become cash cows real quickly," agreed Mahlon G. Anderson, director of government relations for Mid-Atlantic AAA.

Montgomery County, for example, projects it would issue 11,700 tickers per month and raise $10.9 million in revenues if it begins us- ing photo radar.

The use of photo radar has generated controversy in several other states and in Washington. House Majority Leader Rep. Dick Armey, a Texas Republican, has threatened to cut federal funds to the district government unless it stops using photo radar.

Washington has issued more than 100,000 speeding tickets since it began using photo radar five months ago. By comparison, Baltimore ticketed more than 45,000 speeders last year.

Last week, a judge in Denver struck down that city's photo radar program because it violated city and state laws about delegating police powers to a local company.

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