Speed cameras near schools stir strong debate in Howard

Council to vote May 2

April 21, 2011|By Larry Carson, The Baltimore Sun

Two decades ago, a speeding truck smashed into a car carrying Clare Meitl's 16-year-old daughter Jodi and two friends as they drove toward Centennial High School. One girl died and Jodi was badly injured — she spent two weeks at Maryland Shock Trauma Center and took years to recover.

"She had no chance" against the truck, Meitl said of her daughter's best friend, who died.

Now Meitl's only child has a young daughter and lives in the same neighborhood, and the family wants her to be safe. "Please protect our children from people who only care about getting there," she told the Howard County Council at a public hearing Wednesday night on a bill to allow county police to use speed cameras in school zones.

The next speaker was Ronald Ely of Gaithersburg, who heads a group called "Stop Big Brother Maryland," and who said speed cameras are poorly used, make mistakes and represent "a mad scramble for cash" and "cut-rate justice for drivers." Over time, he said, pressure for revenue will overwhelm any safeguards put into place.

Although proponents, including Howard County police, a supervisor of school crossing guards and residents outnumbered opponents roughly 2-to-1, the critics were determined, arguing forcefully on ideological and practical grounds against the cameras. They insisted the cameras are a government grab for easy cash.

Jeff Robinson, an unsuccessful Republican candidate for House of Delegates in Howard last year, said "speed cameras do not address a pressing need." He called them "electronic vultures" and "big brotherism." Ken Aldrich told the council that "constant surveillance is well-suited for the Soviet Union or Cuba, but not for America."

The public hearing in the George Howard building was in preparation for a council vote scheduled May 2 on the speed cameras, which police Chief William J. McMahon said are the only practical way to meaningfully discourage speeding near schools.

The chief said it would take eight to 10 police officers to do the work deterring speeders that two cameras in mobile vans can accomplish. He added that they would free officers from spending 15 minutes on each stop or testifying in court, since nearly all drivers caught by a camera simply pay the $40 fine.

"This is about keeping people safe," McMahon told the council members. He has said speeding is easily the top residents' complaint in Howard County, and there aren't enough officers to stop or even curb it significantly. He said an officer would decide on every ticket issued, and he cited the county's decade-old red-light cameras as proof that the county fairly administers the system.

But critics insisted the cameras are merely a way to collect revenue. Since the cameras can't determine who is driving, there are no points assessed to a driving record from one of the tickets.

"Don't forsake freedom to be secure," said county school board member Brian Meshkin, who said he was speaking as a private citizen. "Speed cameras are bad public policy," he argued, arguing that they don't work and are a "poor government-centered remedy" that provide a "placebo effect" but don't solve the problem. He argued for lighted radar signs that tell drivers their speed as they approach a school.

Earlier, fellow school board member Frank Aquino, also speaking as an individual, took the opposite position. As a daily Beltway commuter, he said, he's seen the brake lights go on near Liberty Road and Towson after state speed cameras installed at those work zones began operating.

"Traffic continues to slow down" in those areas, he said, even after the cameras were removed. "I see little harm from having your picture taken on a public road while breaking the law." Meshkin said the county's seven elected school board members voted 4-3 last week to support the camera bill, but since the student member was absent and could have tied the vote, the board was not represented officially at the council hearing,

The Maryland General Assembly approved the use of speed cameras within a half-mile of schools two years ago, but state law requires local governments enact their own legislation before the cameras can be used. Montgomery County and Washington were already using speed cameras, and state government, Baltimore and Prince George's counties, and the cities of Baltimore, Annapolis and Laurel now have their own programs.

County Executive Ken Ulman hesitated after state passage, unsure whether the program would be worthwhile under the law's limits, including the $40 fine for going at least 12 mph over the posted speed limit. The original legislation would have imposed a $75 fine for speeding on any county road with a speed limit up to 45 mph.

Ulman had county police study speeding for two-day periods between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m. during the school year near each of the county's 70 schools, as well as at private schools, before deciding to go ahead with the program.

The study found that two-thirds of vehicles passing schools were speeding and that 14 percent were going at least 11 mph over the limit, though the percentage varied by location.

Bushy Park Elementary School in Glenwood had the most speeders driving near the speed to get a camera ticket, with 63 percent of those passing the school at least 11 mph over the limit. Only 11 percent of drivers near Laurel Woods Elementary qualified for camera tickets. To save money, police used a type of radar software that allowed counts at 11 mph over the posted limit rather than 12, and the radar missed some vehicles driving too close to others in traffic, police said.

The council is to discuss the issue further at a work session Tuesday at 4:30 p.m.

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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