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December 10, 2007

In 2001, seven people died in highway work zone crashes in Maryland. The following year, the number of fatalities rose to 16, and it's been hovering between 13 and 16 ever since. Work zone deaths this year include highway contractors, a State Highway Administration maintenance crew leader and two prison inmates picking up litter.

Speed is a common factor in crashes of all types, and work zones are no different. That's why the time has come to permit the use of cameras to enforce speed limits in work zones. Gov. Martin O'Malley is expected to offer legislation enabling this during the coming General Assembly session, but it's bound to be controversial. Not everyone is comfortable with law enforcement by unmanned camera.

That's understandable. We live in an age of shrinking personal privacy, and the specter of cameras placed behind every roadside bush or billboard is not a pleasant thought - nor is the prospect of government financed by citation. But what the O'Malley administration is talking about would involve a limited use of speed cameras to address a particularly vexing problem.

Work zones pose a greater risk than the average stretch of highway because drivers are often unfamiliar with new traffic patterns, and they generally require motorists to go slower or exercise special care. The SHA is already taking greater precautions around work zones - making workers more visible, beefing up signage and giving drivers more warning.

But last year's 2,201 crashes and 13 deaths suggest that the additional step of speed cameras is a necessary one. The use of cameras to deter red-light running has proved effective. The experience in Montgomery County, where police are permitted to use speed cameras in certain areas, has also been positive.

That's not to suggest there shouldn't be caveats. Motorists ought to be warned when speed cameras are in use in a work zone. The threshold for violations should also be high - 10 miles per hour or more above the speed limit might be appropriate. The point of this should not be to issue tickets but to discourage speeding.

The SHA and others would also do well to more clearly indicate when work zones aren't staffed, or no longer present a hazard to driving. Too often warning signs linger at work sites that aren't active.

There may be worse traffic safety problems (last year's 13 work zone fatalities were a small fraction of the total 652 deaths on Maryland roads), but it's a significant issue nonetheless. According to federal statistics, four out of five work zone deaths are drivers and passengers, not road crews. Using surveillance technology in this limited way to slow down traffic - and save lives - is a reasonable response.

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