State Highway Administration defends speed camera program

House committee hears first of several arguments over Maryland's camera law

January 15, 2013|By Erin Cox, The Baltimore Sun

The controversy over whether to change Maryland's three-year-old speed camera law arrived in Annapolis Tuesday, with some lawmakers calling for accountability and the State Highway Administration touting the value of its program.

State Highway Administrator Melinda B. Peters said serious accidents in work zones have reached a 10-year low and only 2 percent of drivers are ticketed by the speed cameras. Peters told lawmakers it's necessary to have cameras operating in construction zones even when workers are not present — a practice some lawmakers have criticized — because the jersey barriers and irregular traffic patterns are a hazard.

"Work zones are challenging to maneuver for even the most experienced drivers," Peters said.

She said work-zone deaths have dropped in the three years since the cameras were installed, from nine in 2009 to three in 2011. A review by The Baltimore Sun found that more than 40 percent of speed camera tickets from highway work zones were issued between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m., a time when construction crews are often gone.

The state cameras placed in highway construction zones represent only a portion of the speed cameras put in place by numerous Maryland jurisdictions, including the Baltimore program found to have issued tickets in error and once to a motionless car. A 2009 state law granted local jurisdictions authority to install the cameras near school zones.

Tuesday's briefing was the first of several expected. Key lawmakers have called for full accounting from city officials. Other lawmakers have offered a series of proposals that will also lead to hearings. So far, suggestions include tightening rules for governments, making it easier to challenge tickets and punishing jurisdictions for mistakenly fining motorists.

"People say, 'What are you going to do or not do about speed cameras?' We're going to look at every piece of legislation that comes in," said Del. James E. Malone Jr., vice chair of the Economic Matters Committee. That panel will review proposed changes to speed camera laws that have generated millions of dollars for governments and vexed drivers.

The city's cameras resulted in $19 million in fines in 2012. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has formed a task force to review the city program and has called for "zero errors."

Malone, a Baltimore County Democrat, said his goal is that when the Maryland legislature is done, people who receive the $40 tickets in any jurisdiction will "all truly feel that we're looking out for them and that we have a very responsible speed camera program."

During the briefing, Republican Del. Herbert H. McMillan of Anne Arundel County said he supports punishing jurisdictions that issue bad tickets because he believes it is difficult for a motorist to overturn one in court.

"When you get one of these things in the mail, you know you don't have a prayer," McMillan said. "There should be some kind of punishment."

Baltimore County Del. Jon S. Cardin, a Democrat, has proposed $1,000 fines for each jurisdiction that issues a ticket in error.

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