Tardy Howard

Our view: For a county usually at the vanguard, Howard County demonstrates a troubling reluctance to ensure school zone safety

August 31, 2010

Over the years, Howard County has earned a reputation as a progressive place. Its government has spent heavily in schools, created a fund to help residents lacking health insurance and last year banned minors from using commercial tanning beds without a doctor's prescription, a first in Maryland.

Given all these — dare we say — liberal and family-friendly tendencies, it is more than a little shocking that Howard has yet to embrace the use of speed cameras to make school zones safer. Baltimore City and Baltimore County, as well as Montgomery and Prince George's counties, have chosen to install them. The Maryland State Highway Administration has already employed them to slow down traffic in construction zones — and almost certainly saved lives.

The cameras are not without controversy. Some people are uncomfortable with the Big Brother effect of faceless automation issuing $40 speed tickets, although it seems no worse than the cameras used to capture motorists running red lights, a technology Howard County was among the first jurisdictions in Maryland to embrace.

Others regard them as a blatant effort to soak taxpayers. But if so, they're not very good at it. Unlike traditional police speed traps that move around and are often concealed, speed cameras are stationary and exposed. As a result, drivers learn their positions and eventually alter their behavior — and that is, after all, the point.

That's certainly happened with red light cameras that have been in operation for years. It's a bit early to judge the effect of speed cameras in Maryland (they were approved for use statewide just last year), but preliminary data from the SHA suggests drivers are slowing down in work zones where cameras are in use, such as the Baltimore Beltway at the Charles Street overpass in Towson. Baltimore County police report a similar effect from cameras installed near schools in February.

All that seems to be missing in Howard County is a bit of political courage. Perhaps in a year of voter unrest and economic distress, elected leaders don't want to rock the boat and fear a backlash from an already angry electorate.

Certainly, public distrust is being exploited. To argue, as Councilman Greg Fox did to The Baltimore Sun's Larry Carson, that speeding tickets are a regressive tax (as the poor pay the same fine as the rich) is taking opposition to an absurdity. Would Mr. Fox prefer that traffic laws be income sensitive? If so, Howard police should start ticketing limousines exclusively.

Here's the best way to avoid a speeding ticket: Don't break the law. By state statute, automated enforcement targets only drivers going at least 12 miles per hour above the speed limit. Real police officers aren't necessarily as lenient.

The reality Councilman Fox and others aren't willing to face is that speeding puts young lives in danger. Higher speeds make collisions with pedestrians more likely — and the severity of such encounters much worse. About one in five children killed in vehicle accidents each year is a pedestrian, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Howard police are currently surveying schools to determine which, if any, areas merit speed cameras. But that's a chore that could have been accomplished long before the start of the current school year. If there's any speeding to be done, it should be County Executive Ken Ulman bringing legislation to authorize the cameras in Howard County as soon as possible.

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