City judge criticizes red-light cameras

He suggests officials are focused on revenue

Per-ticket contract among issues

January 09, 2003|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's top District Court judge is questioning the purpose of the city's red-light camera program, suggesting that officials are more focused on generating revenue than preventing accidents.

In an 11-page report, District Administrative Judge Keith E. Mathews echoes criticism by the area's largest motor club that the city's contract with a private company might encourage the issuance of more tickets. Affiliated Computer Systems Inc. administers the city's red-light camera project and receives a fee per ticket issued -- between $11 and $27.

That agreement might encourage the company to cite more violators to raise more money, Mathews writes. Last year, Baltimore issued about 117,000 of the camera tickets, each with a $75 fine. The city has 47 cameras.

The judge's Nov. 25 report, which Mayor Martin O'Malley first read last week, raises other issues.

The city Department of Transportation oversees the contract with ACS. Mathews would like to see that responsibility transferred to the city Police Department, which he says would supervise the program more objectively. The city has "a political interest in obtaining greater revenue by issuing more citations," Mathews writes. "A contract with the police department is perceived as less political."

Mathews is also concerned about the length of yellow lights at intersections. Shorter yellow lights increase the number of tickets, Mathews wrote. The judge suggested setting and publishing standards to ensure that city officials are not setting yellow light times to generate more revenue.

Another concern, Mathews wrote, is the lack of a grace period: Other jurisdictions delay picture-taking for up to half a second after a light has turned red.

The judge said city officials did not provide him with enough data to determine whether the program is preventing accidents.

In an interview, Mathews said he was neither a supporter nor an opponent of red-light cameras. He investigated the program after hearing complaints from drivers and reading about criticism of the city's cameras.

"The report was done to point out what I see as issues that will help the public more readily accept the red-light program in Baltimore," Mathews said.

O'Malley defended the program yesterday, saying it was designed to prevent accidents. The mayor's office provided statistics that showed the city had recorded no fatal accidents at the red-light camera intersections during the past two years.

Last year, the city reported 122 side-impact accidents at red-light camera intersections and 16 rear-end collisions. In 1998, the year before the city began installing cameras, there were 213 side-impact collisions and 56 rear-end crashes.

Citywide, fatal accidents have steadily declined during the past three years, with 44 people killed in crashes last year vs. 55 in 2001.

O'Malley said the cameras have forced drivers to slow when approaching most city intersections because they do not know where the cameras are installed.

"It has a deterrent effect that goes far beyond where the cameras are posted," the mayor said.

O'Malley also said he did not want to change the city's contract with ACS, saying it was beneficial to Baltimore. The company tried to switch to a flat fee to run the program, instead of per-ticket fees, O'Malley said. But he did not feel it would be as good a deal for the city's cash-strapped government.

City police officers must also sign and review each ticket before they are mailed to motorists, allowing Police Department oversight of the program.

"Our contract with them is one of the more favorable ones in the country, from the city's standpoint," O'Malley said.

O'Malley added that the city's traffic signals closely follow federal standards, which require yellow-light times of between three and six seconds, depending on the type of intersection. If engineers learn a light is incorrectly timed, O'Malley said, they correct the error.

O'Malley referred more detailed questions regarding the cameras to other city officials.

However, those officials yesterday declined to produce a copy of ACS' contract with the city or answer questions about grace periods. Adrienne Barnes, a spokeswoman for the department, said such information would be provided only after receiving a request under the Maryland Public Information Act.

The Sun submitted such a request yesterday but did not have a response at press time.

The city's contract has come under attack before -- from AAA Mid-Atlantic, the area's largest motoring club. The organization worries that the per-ticket payment schedule encourages companies to cite more violations than necessary.

In 2001, the organization criticized the city's arrangement and urged O'Malley to follow Howard County's lead by switching to a flat-fee contract. Howard County changed its contract after a judge in California ruled a similar San Diego program violated state law.

More than a dozen jurisdictions in Maryland have red-light cameras.

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