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Study: Traffic Cameras Can Be Bad Deals; Red Light, Speed Cameras Can Raise Revenue, but Don't Always Increase Safety
by Megan Poinski
Cameras that take photographs of motorists running red lights and speeding - currently located in 41 communities statewide - can be bad deals for the cities and counties that install them, according to a new report.
The study by Maryland PIRG (Public Interest Research Group) goes through many of the issues that states and communities have had with the traffic cameras issuing citations - and costing both motorists and communities dearly, the report concludes.
"It looked at whether or not communities that put up cameras have the public's interests at heart, or whether they are looking for revenues first and are signing contracts forfeiting decisions about public safety to companies," said Jenny Levin, a state advocate for PIRG, which is based in Baltimore.
In 2009, the General Assembly passed a law that allows counties and municipalities statewide to install the cameras to catch speeders in school zones and construction areas. A petition effort to bring the bill to referendum was unsuccessful.
The cameras, which have cropped up across the state, have been controversial (there are a handful of red light cameras in Anne Arundel County and officials in Annapolis are planning to use speed cameras this year). Grassroots groups, including Stop Big Brother Maryland and Maryland for Responsible Enforcement, exist to point out the issues that arise due to use of the cameras. Each jurisdiction that decides to use the cameras is able to decide many of the details, like where the cameras will be placed, how citations will be issued, and which company will provide them.
Speed and red light cameras, PIRG's study states, are often used as ways for areas to get more revenues in bad economic times. They essentially shift enforcement from police officers to automated devices, and are seen by opponents as contracting out traffic cop work to private companies.
According to the report, the cameras don't always increase safety on dangerous roadways. Ronald Ely, who is the editor and founder of StopBigBrotherMd.org, has been following the issue of traffic cameras since they started being used in Montgomery County three years ago. He said that several counties and municipalities in Maryland have contracts with traffic camera companies that make money based on how many citations are issued. (Ely said that a creative legal interpretation allows this kind of contract, which is technically outlawed in the state.)
"The sole objective of the corporation is to make more money, and that's purely based on the number of tickets issued," Ely said. "So it gives them an incentive to encourage the municipality to put the cameras where they would get more tickets, like in a transition zone where the speed limit changes, or create a new school zone and put them there."
One company, RedSpeed USA, told Annapolis officials that the city could make about $4.5 million per year off of Forest Drive speeders alone. (Currently the city has one functioning red light camera.)
Ely said that several counties and municipalities put up the cameras soon after they were first allowed statewide. Camera installation slowed down around the 2010 elections, but it has started to continue. Recently, Howard and Baltimore counties have added more cameras to their roadways. And Prince George's County plans to add about six traffic cameras each month this year.
When a jurisdiction decides to start using cameras, the law requires that they can only give out warnings for the first 30 days. In many places in Maryland, Ely said that one camera is usually put up in a low-traffic area for the "warning period." After 30 days, cameras are put everywhere. When New Carrollton began its camera program, 150 warnings were sent out in the first 30 days. The next month, 13,000 drivers received citations, Ely said.
Also, he said, there are constantly questions on how accurate the cameras are. Ely said that camera-issued speeding tickets have been challenged in court because the photos that came with them showed that the ticketed vehicle could not have been traveling as fast as claimed by the ticket.
Ely questioned how effective cameras are in reducing motorists' speed.
"Those 'Your Speed is' signs that you see near construction are very effective in slowing down peoples' speed," he said. "But they are not making any money."
Maryland PIRG's Levin said that the study shows that people, not profits, should be the top consideration in speed and red light enforcement.
"In difficult budget times, when jurisdictions are giving out private contracts for safety enforcement, they need to be vigilant and make sure that the public safety is coming first," she said.