Those who detest speed cameras and consider them nothing more than a way for government to bilk motorists of their money probably had an "I told you so" moment last week. That's when the Baltimore County Police Department announced that the five newest sites for speed cameras would include one adjacent to Stoneleigh Elementary School.
Here's the catch: Stoneleigh is closed to students for at least the next 15 months as it's undergoing an $18.8 million renovation and expansion project. The elementary school students will be taught at the old Carver Center for Arts and Technology building for the 2012-2013 school year as Carver moves to a brand new building next door.
That leaves critics to harp that the safety of children was not the primary concern of the county so much as a desire to nab unsuspecting speeders on Regester Avenue. After all, the unwary drivers might assume that an empty elementary school — or at least one populated by construction workers — hardly constitutes a traditional "school zone."
Indeed, when the Maryland General Assembly gave local governments the authority to install speed cameras several years ago, it set some restrictions. In addition to State Highway Administration work zones, speed cameras were restricted to school zones only. That was done chiefly out of concern for the safety of the state's youngest pedestrians.
But wait — or, if you will pardon the expression, not so fast. What the Baltimore County Police Department soon realized after consulting with school officials is that Stoneleigh's renovation still represents a significant safety hazard. It was more than justified in installing a camera there.
Why? Because while Stoneleigh will be closed, youngsters will be walking along Regester Avenue more than ever. The school system is adding additional bus stops to Regester so that children can be picked up and taken to Carver. Meanwhile, the construction project will mean more people and activity along the road, which means more opportunity for accidents involving speeders.
In other words, Stoneleigh students and others will be as vulnerable as ever. And making youngsters safer remains the goal.
We've said it before and we'll say it again. On balance, speed cameras (and their cousins, red light cameras) are more a blessing than a curse — if used properly. Studies have shown that they cause drivers to slow down or obey traffic signals. Slower speeds and fewer opportunities for collisions mean fewer crashes and fewer road-related deaths.
Meanwhile, the devices free up police officers for more important crime-fighting assignments that require more skill and brain power than running a radar gun. That raises efficiency, saves taxpayers money and ultimately saves lives.
It's also been demonstrated that speed and red light cameras aren't especially good moneymakers for local government. As motorists learn to slow down, fewer tickets are issued and less revenue is collected, which is exactly how the system is supposed to work.
Westminster, for instance, has deactivated four of five red light cameras in that town because in those intersections, people were obeying the law. Only in one intersection, where red-light running is still a problem, did the town choose to keep a camera operating. That, too, is how the system is meant to operate — once motorist behavior changes, there's no need to keep the cameras in place.
We don't blame people for getting upset when they have to pay a $40 fine they might easily have avoided had they paid closer attention to their driving. Nor are we convinced that cameras are always used wisely by local police departments (some locations seem less a threat to public safety than a likely place to catch speeders).
But the point is to change driver behavior, and since speeding tickets are only given to vehicles going more than 12 mph above the posted speed, it's hard to be too sympathetic to those who would endanger children or highway construction zone workers — or anybody else, for that matter. Whether outside a school that's under construction or in the wee hours of the morning, when there's unlikely to be a child in sight, the cameras need to stay watchful.
Want them turned off or removed? Simply obey the law.