Speed cameras poised to pass

Senate embraces plan for $40 fine near schools

House appears ready to follow suit

General Assembly 2009

April 01, 2009|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com

Automated cameras that result in $40 citations for owners of vehicles caught speeding could be coming to many parts of Maryland under a plan that surfaced Tuesday in the state Senate and appears likely to become law.

Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley has been seeking a statewide expansion of speed cameras, which generated nearly $10 million in fines last year through a pilot program in Montgomery County, the only jurisdiction where they are now allowed.

Lawmakers approved a similar statewide initiative six years ago, but it was vetoed by then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican. Critics say the program is little more than a cash cow for local governments and a major annoyance to drivers policed by machines.

The General Assembly has rebuffed efforts to revive the plan, and O'Malley's proposal had appeared all but dead again this year. A Senate committee watered down his legislation, allowing the cameras only in highway work zones.

But the initiative unexpectedly gained new life Tuesday, when the full Senate embraced a suggestion from Sen. James N. Robey, a former Howard County police chief and Democratic county executive, to significantly widen the committee's bill.

Robey proposed authorizing speed cameras within a half-mile of any school, which could place them in huge swaths of the state's urban and suburban areas. The Senate accepted his suggestion by a vote of 26-19.

"It's about safety," Robey said. "We can't put police officers everywhere, but we have the technology to reduce speed. We should use it."

The House of Delegates appears willing to follow suit. House leaders said they have been waiting for the Senate to act, because that is where a speed camera bill died in the final hours of last year's legislative session.

Maryland lawmakers are suggesting that $40 citations be issued to owners of vehicles captured going at least 12 mph above the posted speed limit. The penalty would not be considered a moving violation and no points would be issued to an offender, meaning that insurance premiums would not increase.

Private vendors hired by the state and local governments would install and maintain the cameras, with the money going to whichever government entity places them. Police employees would review the citations before they are mailed out, and motorists could contest their fines in court. Areas monitored by speed cameras would be clearly marked with signs.

Several Republican senators called the cameras an unwarranted government intrusion and pointed Tuesday to the wide disparity between penalties for speeders recorded by cameras and those caught by police officers. Motorists who are pulled over can be fined $120 to $260 and given two to five points on their licenses. Sen. Alex X. Mooney, a Republican representing Frederick and Washington counties, said that if safety were the top priority, the penalties would be symmetrical.

Robey said he would be in favor of that, but he noted that the camera fine had been designed as a compromise.

Sen. Bryan W. Simonaire, an Anne Arundel County Republican, said the camera program was a needless tax on residents that generates money for additional government spending.

Even supporters recognize the point.

Chevy Chase - one of several Montgomery County municipalities that use the cameras - made more money from them last year than its entire town budget, Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat, told colleagues Tuesday.

To avoid the appearance of cameras being used to pad government coffers, Frosh suggested limiting any local take to covering camera expenses, plus 10 percent that could be used only on pedestrian and public safety initiatives. The Senate approved Frosh's amendment.

Cameras emerged as a law enforcement tool in Maryland in 1997, when the General Assembly authorized the use of automated systems to record the tags of vehicles that run red lights.

Red-light cameras have reduced rear-end collisions by up to 40 percent in Howard County, Robey said, calling the statistic proof that cameras can change driver behavior.

Sen. E.J. Pipkin, a Republican from Southern Maryland, said the cameras would be far less effective at "behavior modification" than the shame of getting pulled over by an officer.

"You just get a citation in the mail," he said. "All this does is promote anger against the government."

Montgomery County officials said their program, approved in 2006 and operating for two years, has been successful in reducing speeding.

A 2007 study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that the number of vehicles going 10 mph or more over the speed limit in active camera zones decreased by 70 percent, and speed violations fell by almost 40 percent in areas with camera warning signs but no cameras.

The Maryland Chiefs of Police backs speed cameras.

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