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Prove it, Big Brother: Maryland bill requires photo evidence for drivers ticketed by speed cameras

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 20, 2013

ANNAPOLIS | Maryland lawmakers are considering a bill to require that speed cameras provide clear photographic evidence of infractions, after numerous occasions where camera systems have ticketed drivers who appeared in photos to be traveling within the speed limit.

The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee heard testimony Wednesday in response to past camera glitches in Prince George's County and in Baltimore, which announced last month it is spending $450,000 to replace its first installation of error-plagued devices.

State and local leaders say the cameras are an effective way to curb speeding and prevent accidents. While they object to allegations that the devices are little more than a cash grab, they acknowledge the system has its flaws.

"I don't know where it's going," committee chairman Sen. Brian E. Frosh, Montgomery Democrat, said of several speed camera bills his panel is considering. "Tweaks probably need to be made with the existing program and its administration."

Maryland is one of 12 states with a statewide speed camera program, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The state uses its devices to enforce speed limits in highway work zones. But six counties and Baltimore all operate their own speed cameras in school zones, as do at least 17 municipalities, most of which are located in Prince George's and Montgomery counties.

Despite complaints from motorists, police officials from Montgomery and Prince George's counties testified that cameras help decrease accidents and violations.

Prince George's County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, a Democrat, even suggested Wednesday that the state should boost its $40 fine to act as a stronger deterrent.

"The problem with what we have in Maryland right now is you don't really have to pay it," he said, referring to the fact that overdue fines don't increase, while the District fines speeders $92 and escalates the fee if it goes unpaid. "Go to D.C. and get a ticket and see how many times you speed."

Some states have shied away from speed cameras over concerns that they may actually distract drivers and contribute to accidents and that vendor contracts often include stipulations that limit their financial benefit to local government.

Arizona scrapped its speed camera system in 2010 after its initial contract expired, and California cities including Los Angeles, Berkeley and San Jose have gotten rid of theirs in recent years.

"It has nothing to do with safety of road workers," said Maryland Sen. Nancy Jacobs, Harford Republican, who is co-sponsoring a bill to repeal speed cameras in the state. "All it has to deal with is making money, and they're lying if they think it does anything [for safety]."

Local governments in Maryland select their own camera vendors, which has led to a hodgepodge of devices with often inconsistent operating procedures and technology standards.

A state audit revealed last year that the state inadequately vetted its vendor and uncalibrated equipment was used sometimes.

In 2011, a Prince George's County business owner successfully challenged several tickets issued by the county's town of District Heights after the pair of still photos attached to the citations appeared to show his company's vehicles traveling at reasonable speeds.

A Baltimore Sun investigation last year pointed out numerous inconsistencies in the city's systems, including one citation where a car appeared to be stopped at a red light.

The city also refunded more than $3,000 in speed camera ticket fines last summer because they listed the camera's location to be at the wrong address.

An outright repeal of speed cameras looks highly unlikely, and while Mr. Frosh said the state could fine-tune its laws, he added that there has been minimal buzz this session around the prospect of doing so.

Mrs. Jacobs said she wants more decisive action.

"I don't think we should have them," she said. "Every person has the right to face their accuser, and when your accuser is a camera, you can't do that."

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