Slow down or say cheese

City panel recommends installing radar cameras in neighborhoods

plan first needs Assembly's OK

August 01, 2007|By Alia Malik | Alia Malik,Sun reporter

Baltimore speeders might eventually have something more to worry about than how late they are for work.

Following Montgomery County's lead, Baltimore officials said yesterday that they will seek to install speed cameras in neighborhoods around the city.

The use of radar cameras to photograph speeders' license plates and issue fines by mail was suggested in a report released yesterday by the city-appointed Task Force on Traffic Calming and Pedestrian-Friendliness. The proposal lacks specifics but recommends placing cameras near schools, recreation centers, parks and churches.

Mayor Sheila Dixon said she supports the proposal for speed cameras, and a spokesman said yesterday that Gov. Martin O'Malley is also inclined to back them.

"I think it's time," Dixon said yesterday at a news conference. "We need it in the city because speeding is getting out of hand."

Typically, violators are issued citations similar to parking tickets, charging fines but not adding points to drivers' licenses.

Critics of such cameras - which have been in use in Washington for several years - charge that they do little to improve safety and are only intended to generate revenue for local governments. Some have also raised questions about the accuracy of the systems, though the citations have generally held up to scrutiny by judges when challenged in court, according to Maryland legislative analysts.

Before installing such cameras, Baltimore needs to secure permission from the General Assembly. City transportation officials have tried in the past but were never able to win support from the city's legislative delegation, said Deputy Chief of Traffic Frank Murphy. But after much debate, the legislature approved the cameras for Montgomery County in 2005 - coming back in January 2006 to override a veto by former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

"Since the Montgomery County bill was successful, we are now hoping for more support from the legislature," Murphy said.

Yesterday, Del. Maggie McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat who chairs the House committee that is assigned speed camera legislation, acknowledged that some city lawmakers might still be skeptical of backing a proposal only for their jurisdiction.

Instead, she said she will probably put forward statewide legislation permitting all counties and municipalities to install speed cameras.

In 2003, McIntosh backed a statewide bill that was passed by both chambers but was vetoed by Ehrlich.

"We passed it four years ago, you know?" she said. "And I don't see why we wouldn't get it passed again. Last time the governor vetoed it; this time we have a governor who, I think, would love to sign it."

O'Malley is open to the idea of speed cameras, said spokesman Rick Abbruzzese.

"With proper oversight, these cameras can serve a public safety and homeland security purpose as well," Abbruzzese said.

Montgomery County began installing its cameras in March, said county police spokeswoman Lucille Baur. The county now has six cameras in unmarked vans and is working on installing them on poles this summer, Baur said. Statistics were not available yesterday on how many tickets have been issued so far by the county.

Cameras are only used in school zones and in residential areas where the speed limit is 35 mph or below, Baur said.

If a radar camera detects that a driver is going at least 10 mph over the limit, it takes a series of photographs of the car's license plate, and a $40 fine is mailed to the car's registered address. Those wishing to challenge their ticket may do so in traffic court.

Those specifications were outlined in the enabling legislation, said Del. William A. Bronrott, a Montgomery Democrat.

A bill that would allow the cameras in Baltimore - or a statewide proposal - would probably be modeled after Montgomery's law, McIntosh said.

"People are very hesitant to vote for something that's open-ended when it's something that's controversial," she said. "We'll see how controversial they are. I think people are getting more and more used to the technology."

Any such bill is expected to face a fight in the legislature.

"If you really want it to be about safety, then put a policeman there and put some points on people's license when they speed through a school zone," said Sen. Andrew P. Harris, a Republican who represents parts of Baltimore and Harford counties. "It rang hollow, the argument that it was just about safety."

Harris and other critics say the cameras would infringe on privacy and might generate unfair tickets. "It's the government taking a picture of you," Harris said. "It's Big Brother keeping an eye on you."

When Ehrlich vetoed speed camera legislation, he denounced the proposal in his veto letter as "trial by camera."

"This bill ... abridges the right to confront the witnesses against the accused," he wrote.

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