Distorted pictures?

January 15, 2003

EACH YEAR, Baltimore collects more than $6 million in fines from motorists photographed running red lights. But are these violations real or just the result of a system rigged to collect as many $75 fines as possible?

District Administrative Judge Keith E. Mathews ponders this troubling question in an unusual 19-page report. The judge is worried because:

Apparently alone among U.S. cities, Baltimore pays a private company according to the number of violators its cameras catch. Thus, the contractor has a profit incentive to snare the maximum number of offenders. Other cities pay flat fees to their camera operators.

Yellow-light times at various intersections are not uniform. In examining a sample of 181 citations, Judge Mathews found 30 percent were issued in cases where the yellow light was shorter than the federally mandated three-second minimum. This increased the likelihood of motorists getting trapped in camera pictures.

Sixteen of 47 intersections had sensors that would photograph motorists even if they were stuck in the traffic. Among them was Garrison Boulevard and Wabash Avenue, where backups are common because a railroad line adjoins the intersection.

These findings are disturbing.

Because of similar irregularities, red-light cameras have been successfully challenged in a number of cities. San Diego is a prime example. There, a judge threw out the tickets of about 300 motorists, saying camera evidence was "so untrustworthy and unreliable that it should not be admitted."

Baltimore must correct the problems Judge Mathews has identified before camera evidence is dismissed here, too. After all, red-light cameras, if they are operated properly, are a valuable enforcement tool in a city where running red lights occurs in epidemic proportions.

The remedies are simple and obvious. Not only should the red-light camera contract be awarded on a flat-fee basis but it also should be administered by the police and not by the Transportation Department, which sets timing at various traffic lights.

These changes would go a long way toward fortifying the city's argument that red-light cameras are used to increase traffic safety and not to entrap motorists. And that, in turn, would help silence violators' protests that the camera was at fault.

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