Car 54, where are you?

April 29, 2002

AT LEAST we could have a conversation with a couple of swells like Officers Gunther Toody and Francis Muldoon, explain that we didn't really run that red light. That we didn't even know the light was red, would swear it was that "roll on through" shade of amber. We could offer up color blindness as an excuse or explain that our high heel got stuck on the gas pedal. At least there would be a human being to talk to.

Nowadays, the city fathers have opted for 21st-century gadgetry to nab scofflaws. When a red-light camera perched at an intersection decides who gets a ticket, everything may not be as it seems. Apparently some of the cameras in Baltimore need to have their lenses cleaned. Or their electronics tweaked. Or their handlers retrained.

As several drivers told The Sun's Marcia Myers recently, some tickets generated by the city's 47 red-light cameras were accompanied by photographs of vehicles that belonged to other motorists. And when the motorists tried to contest the tickets, they wound up in the black hole of the city collections division, listening to an incessant busy signal or put on indefinite hold.

Even when a driver went to court to challenge the ticket - and won! - the citation somehow materialized again in his mailbox.

Is it time for a performance review of the city's red-light cameras? Machines do make mistakes - remember the days when accused speeders challenged the accuracy of police radar guns and discovered that some had difficulty clocking the miles? The manufacturer of the red-light cameras says their annual error rate is less than 2 percent; nevertheless, city transit officials say they will meet with the vendor May 1.

It may be that the Police Department officers who review the photos and write the citations should have their eyes checked. At the very least, motorists should be able to talk to a courteous city worker who can explain how best to contest a mistaken ticket. Officials are promising a new call-in center will be available shortly; its staff is already hired and trained.

But remember, if the car in the photo doesn't look like yours, it may not be.

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