Red-light cameras to speed up process

Digital devices to produce pictures faster, clearer

August 22, 2004|By Artika Rangan | Artika Rangan,SUN STAFF

Red light runners in Bel Air soon will have digital cameras to thank for the fines they receive in the mail.

Town officials plan to replace one of Bel Air's three 35mm red-light cameras with a digital system by the end of the month, providing officers with more precise photographs. The digital camera would be installed at Route 24 and Baltimore Pike, and its sensor would be above ground, rather than in its current location underneath the road.

"The technology is better, and the quality of pictures will be clearer," said Chief Leo Matrangola of the Bel Air Police Department, adding that the department would receive the pictures electronically, rather than having to develop them.

"It's instantaneous," he said. "The picture is made for you."

Matrangola said he expects the town to decide whether to switch the other cameras to digital technology by the beginning of next year, after the success of the first digital camera is measured.

Bel Air installed four red-light cameras in March 2000 to reduce the number of accidents caused by red-light runners. The cameras were put in at various town intersections, including Route 24 and Baltimore Pike, Churchville Road and Main Street, and Baltimore Pike and South Bond Street.

The town installed a fourth camera at Route 24 and Boulton Street, but removed it because there were few red-light runners, Matrangola said.

The number of accidents at each intersection has dropped drastically since the cameras were installed four years ago, the chief said. Between 1997 and 1999, there were nearly 18 reported accidents at Route 24 and Baltimore Pike. Between 2000 and last year, there were less than eight reported accidents there.

Accidents at Churchville Road and Main Street decreased from more than 20 accidents to three since the cameras were installed, and accidents at South Bond Street and Baltimore Pike dropped from more than 15 to one per year during the same period.

"Clearly, they're doing something," Matrangola said.

More than 12,000 tickets have been issued since the red-light camera system was implemented. The penalty for running a light is a $75 fine, but the violation is not attached as points to the person's driving record.

But red-light cameras have prompted their share of controversy.

A $10 million class-action lawsuit filed in Baltimore recently claims that some camera-equipped intersections in the city have unusually short yellow lights, unfairly snaring motorists who end up going through the intersection after the lights turn red. Baltimore officials reject the claim.

Bel Air resident Edward Shlikas, a long-time opponent of the red-light cameras, said he believes the policy of making red-light violations a civil fine disparages the program's goals.

"It's not for public safety. It's just a way to make money," he said. "A person can wake up every morning, run every red-light camera from Harford to Howard County and back again for as long as he likes, as long as he is rich enough to pay off the private corporations and municipalities that run the red-light cameras."

Shlikas argues that red-light cameras cause more rear-end collisions because motorists slam on their brakes rather than run the light.

"Red-light cameras don't make a difference, they make money," said Shlikas, who has never received a red-light fine.

During fiscal year 2000, Bel Air's total revenue from the program was about $59,000. In 2001, the town earned about $234,000, and the cameras raised more than $85,000 in 2002 and $100,300 last year.

But Matrangola and Schlehr maintain that the cost to administer the program leaves little room for profit.

Schlehr said the town is still paying off the $56,015 cost to install the cameras. Additional costs include developing the film, issuing and mailing a citation and putting the report into the computer.

Matrangola said once a digital camera is installed, the town will raise its $2,000 monthly cost to $2,400.

"It's not a profit because it doesn't account for all the labor," he said. "To reduce all the accidents, we would need to increase the number of officers. It barely reimburses the town for the cost to administer the project."

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