Cameras proposed to catch speeders

O'Malley administration to seek legislative OK for statewide plan aimed at violators in work zones

December 01, 2007|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun reporter

The O'Malley administration will seek General Assembly authorization to use cameras to enforce speed limits in work zones as part of a "hard-hitting" package of highway safety legislation, Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari said yesterday.

If Gov. Martin O'Malley can persuade lawmakers to adopt the measure during the session that starts next month, it would for the first time give police in Maryland the discretion to use camera technology for speed enforcement on a statewide basis. Police in Montgomery County are currently permitted to use such cameras in school zones and residential neighborhoods.

Past proposals to expand the use of speed cameras have met with fierce opposition - especially from Republican legislators who have called them an unwarranted intrusion. Former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. successfully blocked a bill to allow their use statewide in 2003 but was overridden in 2006 when he vetoed a local bill permitting their use in Montgomery.

Porcari's announcement came at the Maryland Traffic Leadership Summit yesterday in Linthicum Heights, where law enforcement and transportation officials gathered to discuss ways to reduce the level of crash fatalities in Maryland. That statistic rose last year to 652 from 614 in 2005.

Work zone fatalities have been a particular concern of state transportation officials after a spate of recent incidents in which government workers, contractors' employees and prisoners have been killed by vehicles while working on Maryland roads.

"It's very personal for all of us," Porcari said.

Anticipating an objection usually voiced by opponents of speed cameras, Porcari said the proposal is not motivated by a desire to put money in government coffers.

"It is not a revenue measure. It is a safety measure," he said.

But previous proposals to permit the use of cameras to enforce laws against speeding and running red lights have been met with suspicion from conservative lawmakers.

When the bill to permit speed cameras statewide passed the Senate in 2003, Sen. Alexander X. Mooney of Frederick County decried it as a blow to opponents of "Big Brother." When Ehrlich vetoed the bill giving Montgomery County the authority to use speed cameras, he said it could set a precedent leading to the pervasive use of cameras to monitor people around the state. Other opponents have questioned the reliability of the cameras.

There are several types of speed camera systems used around the world, including such countries as Australia and the United Kingdom.

According to a Montgomery County police Web site, its system does not photograph all vehicles - only those that trigger the system by driving at a certain threshold above the speed limit. If a vehicle passes a camera location at or above that speed, the system takes a series of photographs that measure time and distance traveled, and capture the license plate number.

One reason O'Malley administration officials gave for treating work zones as a special case is that police have difficulty pulling over speeding motorists without further tying up traffic. State law already permits doubled fines for speeding in a work zone.

According to the state Office of Traffic and Safety, there were 34 fatalities in work zones from 2002 through 2006, compared with 28 in the previous five-year period. Injuries jumped to 4,741 from 4,295 in the same two periods.

Two employees of a highway contractor were killed in August when a hit-and-run driver plowed into them and three other workers on the side of U.S. 29 in Montgomery County. In separate incidents in June and August, two prison inmates were killed while working on highway cleanup crews.

In May, two government employees were killed while working on the road. State Highway Administration maintenance crew leader Richard W. Moser, 57, was struck by a pickup truck on a highway ramp near Frederick. Howard County police Cpl. Scott Wheeler, 31, was fatally injured when he stepped into the roadway to flag down a suspected speeder in Savage.

Porcari said the administration is also examining whether using cameras for traffic enforcement would be appropriate in other locations, such as the Maryland Transportation Authority toll facilities. For now, he said, the administration's legislative request would be limited to the work zones.

Other components of O'Malley's highway safety proposal have not been determined, Porcari said, though he said officials were looking at whether to tighten the state's graduated licensing law for young drivers. In recent weeks, nine teenagers in the Washington area and Southern Maryland have been killed in crashes involving young drivers' carrying multiple adolescent passengers.

The administration's position reflects a growing interest among law enforcement agencies in using technology to extend increasing stretched police resources.

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