The city's first speed enforcement cameras have been snapping photos of vehicles going through a busy Northeast Baltimore intersection near City College since Oct. 1, and initial results are in: 50 warnings were mailed out in the first seven days for drivers exceeding the 30-mph limit by 12 mph or more.
Police are reviewing an additional 323 photos and videos that could also turn into violations, the fastest being a car clocked at 70 mph on Oct. 6 headed south on the Alameda at 33rd Street
"That's pretty fast," said Baltimore Police Sgt. Stanton W. Clark, a 35-year veteran who is reviewing the photos and decides who deserves citations.
"That's interstate speed," concurred Randall Scott, chief of traffic for the city's Department of Transportation.
In the first week, the average violation speed for drivers going south on the Alameda was about 60 mph, according to transportation statistics. It was slower on East 33rd Street, a little less than 50 mph.
Here's the positive part for drivers. Because speed cameras, like red-light cameras, can't discern who is driving the vehicle, the citations are much like parking tickets and don't carry points or insurance penalties.
For now, officials are sending out warnings. But starting Nov. 2, people will get real tickets, with real $40 fines. For the driver going 70, that's better than the $160 ticket and 3 points assessed to his license for getting pulled over by an officer. By the end of this month, the city could have 50 more speed cameras in place, most near schools.
Baltimore County officials are putting up 15 speed cameras in school zones; other jurisdictions are considering doing the same.
Clark used to park his cruiser on the Alameda to catch speeders and said it's a notorious street for fast drivers but also a good place to catch them, especially at the bottom of one of the hills. It's near City College and other schools. Likewise, 33rd Street is a wide boulevard that seems to encourage speeders.
"When you have an accident there, it's usually a good one," Clark said.
Critics have long contended that enforcement cameras are just another way for the government to generate revenue - private companies are contracted to run the systems - while local officials insist the only goal is reducing speeding and the running of red lights.
A recent study in Montgomery County, where speed cameras have been a fact of life for two years, found that speeds in camera zones decreased, as did the number of tickets sent out. The study also found that accidents resulting in injuries and fatalities went down nearly 40 percent.
Baltimore hired Affiliated Computer Services to run its speed camera program, the same company used by Montgomery County. One of its vice presidents, Allen Shutt, said he expects the trend from Montgomery County to repeat in Baltimore, though speeds might be a bit slower in an urban environment.
"We see this as a necessary enforcement effort to reduce speed and improve safety," Scott said.
The new state law that took effect Oct. 1 for local jurisdictions and state agencies limits the cameras to school and work zones and Monday through Friday from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.
People receiving fines can challenge the tickets, but they also will be able to sign on to the city's Web site and, using their ticket number, watch the video or see the pictures of their car going by the camera.
"They can see what we see and decide for themselves if it's worth challenging," Scott said. In Montgomery County, less than one-half of 1 percent of recipients of 740,000 citations fought the ticket.
When all 51 speed cameras are up and working, as well as the others in Baltimore County, officials and the public should get a good measure of people's driving habits on some of the busiest roads.