- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 4, 2010

Lawmakers around the country are turning to speed cameras to mask the deficits caused by their reckless spending. This is a misuse of the police power to raise revenue for big government.

The latest budget proposals from California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and New York Gov. David A. Paterson include ambitious plans to ticket millions of drivers a year. Residents in both states should prepare themselves to endure pious pronouncements about the need for such machines to save children from reckless drivers. Traffic cameras, however, are not about safety but about money, and these governors need money fast.

Maryland Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley finds himself a step ahead of his higher-profile colleagues. Last year, he rammed legislation through the General Assembly that expanded the use of speed cameras to all parts of the state in the name of protecting vulnerable young pupils as they walk to school. The favored talking point of legislators at the time was that restricting the use of cameras to “school zones” demonstrated the purity of their intentions.

Now that many of Mr. O’Malley’s cameras have begun to snap away, it is apparent that revenue - not safety - really topped the priority list. Localities have been scrambling to manipulate the new authority to deploy cameras in the most profitable ways.

For instance, the Maryland State Highway Administration’s definition for a school zone includes the straightforward requirement that such an area be “routinely used by pupils for access to or egress from school buildings or grounds.” These sensible guidelines are being ignored statewide.

Cities including Baltimore and New Carrollton have suddenly discovered school zones where none previously existed - including locations where no one walks to school. Other cities, including Brentwood and Riverdale Park, have adopted ordinances creating brand-new zones in preparation for cameras not yet installed. Cheverly and Sykesville officials have gone even further by preparing to lower the speed limit on local roads in anticipation of the new robotic traffic enforcers.

There is only one possible explanation for this behavior. The most lucrative location for a camera is a high-volume road where the speed limit is set too low for the traffic conditions. That’s exactly what you get when creating child-free school zones.

It’s fair to ask why Mr. O’Malley added the easily circumvented school-zone requirement to his speed-camera legislation in the first place. Ron Ely, whose watchdog Web site stopbigbrothermd.org tracks Maryland’s traffic-camera abuse, told The Washington Times that the zones seem to be better at protecting politicians than children. “The words ‘school zone’ are pretty good at deflecting political criticism,” he said, “but if you dig into this, it looks a lot less like public safety and a lot more like the shameless exploitation of children for revenue.”

Mr. O’Malley, Mr. Paterson and Mr. Schwarzenegger should come clean with their constituencies and focus on reducing spending instead of finding tricky new ways to extract even more money from overburdened taxpayers.