'Speed Trap State' new Md. motto, thanks to cameras

  • A new sign near Elkridge Landing Middle School on Montgomery Road warns motorists that their speed could be monitored by cameras.
A new sign near Elkridge Landing Middle School on Montgomery… (Staff Photo by Sarah Pastrana )
December 12, 2011|Jay Hancock

James F. Hunter never goes more than 5 miles per hour over the speed limit. The Connecticut businessman says he hasn't gotten anything but a parking ticket in three decades.

So he was surprised when Maryland nailed him for speeding on his way back from watching a friend run the Marine Corps Marathon a few weeks ago in Washington. A $40 fine. Booked by a camera and a computer. For going 67 mph on the interstate outside Baltimore in a 55-mph zone that wasn't clearly marked, he says, in a work area that didn't exist.

"If you pick my pocket in small ways, I hesitate to think how you would pick my pocket if I were to do business in Maryland," said Hunter's "Dear Gov. O'Malley" letter, which he sent to the governor and shared with me. "I have recommended to my company that we do not consider further expansion into Maryland."

As Maryland adds speed cameras at a rapid and apparently unchecked rate, it risks annoying more than its populace. The state is gaining the same reputation as the shabby rural town that tickets unwary outsiders to finance the sheriff's convention trip to Hawaii.

"Maryland has been one of the leaders in implementing speed camera programs," says Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Maryland looks like the leader. Speed cameras are multiplying like stink bugs.

Nobody seems to count how many speed cameras states own or how much revenue they collect as a result. But of the 12 states that allow the devices, only in Maryland and Arizona are there more than a dozen cities and counties deploying them, according to the highway safety institute.

In Arizona, a speed camera can ruin your day in 17 jurisdictions. In Maryland there are no fewer than 29. That's a fourth of all the jurisdictions nationwide using speed cameras. (Full disclosure: I got caught going 43 in a 30-mph school zone on Edmondson Avenue in Baltimore a few weeks ago.)

Maryland is also one of the few states with speed cameras on interstate highways — seven camera vehicles rotating among 10 locations. (Check safezones.maryland.gov to see where.)

Gathering state and local data, StopBigBrotherMD.org calculated this month that Maryland speed cameras generated $77 million in revenue for the fiscal year that ended June 30. That's twice as much as the state collected in alcohol taxes.

State cameras alone (the ones on interstate highways) have generated 769,000 citations since 2009, enough to fetch $31 million if they all were paid. However, $7 million of that wasn't collected, said David Buck, spokesman for the State Highway Administration.

Maryland is becoming worse than Delaware, another little state notorious for highway robbery. At least in Delaware, which doesn't allow speed cameras, overpriced tollbooths and E-ZPass lanes let you know your wallet is about to become lighter. Maryland swipes your money on the sly.

The excuse, of course, is safety. Speed cameras are ranged near schools and work zones. Studies have shown they reduce accidents. But they're also an easy and addictive way to raise revenue. In the best small-town tradition, they don't always come with good warning. And what defines a work zone is subject to debate.

"The picture clearly shows no barricades" in the area where he was fined, Hunter said in an interview. "It looks like an open road. I don't doubt I was [speeding], but it wasn't clearly marked."

A speed-camera vehicle has been issuing tickets at the Charles Street bridge project on the Beltway in Baltimore County in recent months even though workers were nowhere near the highway, says state Sen. Jim Brochin, a Towson Democrat.

"The lanes are not altered at all," Brochin said. "There's no work and there's no construction. They're just doing it for the money."

He is sponsoring a bill to allow cameras only in active work sites. The highway administration's Buck, however, says construction areas can be hazardous for motorists even if workers aren't present.

"Just because somebody's not standing there doesn't mean it's not an active work zone," he said.

The subtlety is likely to be lost on many of the motorists getting fined by a state that already has a reputation for high taxes. Maryland, the only speed-camera state east of Ohio, will give thousands of East Coast motorists like Hunter their first memory of a speeding ticket without a squad car, a siren and a cop. Or without a good reason for receiving a ticket.

Hunter acknowledges with good humor that his Maryland business boycott won't send the state into a depression. He and his partners own and operate Rita's Italian ice and frozen custard stores in Rhode Island and Connecticut. But how many other business folks are getting similar "Welcome to Maryland!" mail and responding the same way?

A few days ago, Hunter had a meeting in Hagerstown. He was still mad. Instead of booking a local hotel, he stayed in Chambersburg, Pa., drove over the border the next morning and spent as little time in this state as possible.

jay.hancock@baltsun.com

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