Enforcement, not big fines, key to traffic safety

Our view: Studies show Maryland's roads and intersections are made safer not by raising fines but by catching more scofflaws

February 01, 2011

Making roads and highways safer is a science, not a way for governments to balance their budgets. That doesn't mean that traffic safety can't be improved by issuing more tickets or increasing the accompanying fines but that how one goes about it makes all the difference.

Case in point: red light cameras. Remember a decade or more ago, when the installation of cameras at accident-prone intersections was seen by some as a violation of the motoring public's constitutional right to privacy? Never mind that some Baltimore crossroads had become veritable pinball machines for red-light runners, with deadly consequences.

A study released Tuesday by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety demonstrates that Baltimore and 13 other cities made a smart move. An estimated 159 lives were saved over a five-year period by the enhanced enforcement effort. Baltimore alone saw a 14 percent reduction in deaths attributed to red-light running; some cities saw reductions several times as great.

Red-light cameras aren't a particularly profitable deal for local governments. As drivers adjust to their presence, they stop running red lights. Fewer violations mean less revenue for Baltimore and the counties that use them.

Speed cameras are likely to follow a similar pattern. A report released last week by the Baltimore County Police Department shows that motorists there have been slowing down since the county started using the cameras in 15 school zones last year, a number that may soon be expanded. The State Highway Administration has reported similar success in slowing drivers with work zone speed cameras.

That hasn't stopped the naysayers who would like the program curtailed, or at least have cameras turned off when schools aren't in session or workers aren't present at construction projects. But such criticisms are way off the mark. Construction zones are still dangerous to motorists in the off hours, and with PTA meetings and other activities at all hours of the day, school zones can ill afford to be turned into racetracks after 3 p.m.

Why tell drivers that it's fine to go 12 miles an hour or more beyond the speed limit (the enforcement standard for speed cameras) in a school zone after 10 p.m.? The whole point is to train the public to slow down near schools regardless of whether it's a weekday, late at night or a weekend — when the buildings are often used for community activities anyway.

Nevertheless, not all traffic-related fines are so effective. Last week, Gov. Martin O'Malley submitted a budget proposal that included a new surcharge of $300 to $1,500 on traffic fines for more serious offenses, such as drunken driving and excessive speeding.

Most telling was that the policy was concocted not by the Maryland Department of Transportation or Maryland State Police but by the agency responsible for the state budget to fill a $5 million hole. What landed in lawmakers' laps was a flawed policy dependent on such problematic details as how many points a driver is assessed by the courts.

It's unlikely to become law. Insiders say the proposal was mostly a way to give the administration flexibility while the budget is negotiated with the Maryland General Assembly, and cuts or other sources of revenue will likely replace it.

Would a $500 fine slow down drivers? How about a $10,000 one? Studies suggest a stiff penalty alone is not usually effective. Heightened (and reliable) enforcement is better, and that's why the unblinking eye of a camera — coupled with relatively paltry fines of $40 and $75 with no points — is gradually making Maryland's roads and intersections safer.

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