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EDITORIAL: Speed-camera tunnel vision

Sham tickets expose the financial motivation behind robotic enforcement

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Speed-camera salesmen are finding it tougher to get away with the usual platitudes about the reliability of their products. As 2012 drew to a close, Xerox, the photocopier giant in charge of photo-enforcement programs throughout the country, admitted that 1 out of every 20 citations issued at certain Baltimore locations was inaccurate.

That means a lot of people who were following the speed limit got an unwelcome and unfair demand for $40 in the mail. It's not an isolated incident. As The Washington Times' Jeffrey Anderson reported Wednesday, Metropolitan Police Department Sgt. Mark Robinson blew the whistle on tickets inappropriately issued by the Third Street tunnel camera in downtown Washington. The former photo-radar instructor for the department pointed out that the city was enforcing a 45 mph speed limit instead of the posted 40 mph speed limit. The law states that the city has to enforce the posted limit, and, according to at least one hearing officer, the discrepancy is enough to invalidate the charge. Because the error in this case happens to favor the driver, it may seem like a minor technicality. The entire photo-ticketing enterprise is built upon exploiting such technicalities.

Consider what the District is doing: hauling in millions of dollars by photographing vehicles driving the perfectly reasonable speed of 55 mph on an interstate highway. If speed-camera tickets were issued only to the extreme violators who endanger the lives of others, the programs would never issue enough citations to justify the steep operational expenses. That's why cameras are placed only in locations where the speed limits criminalize ordinary behavior.

This is the case in Prince George's County, where limits are posted so low that in any group of 20 drivers passing one of the county's cameras, 17 of them can be branded criminals and charged $40. That's according to traffic study data in a report the county filed last month with the Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA). The county's ultralow speed limits don't make roads safer. Traffic engineers recommend the limits be set according to how fast 85 percent of traffic moves in free-flowing conditions because, as SHA guidelines explain, this "indicates the speed that most motorists on that road consider safe and reasonable under ideal conditions." On the seven streets prowled by the county's private, for-profit camera contractor, the speed limits are an average of 13 mph below the recommended amount. The Federal Highway Administration says, "Posted speeds should almost always be within 5 mph of the 85th percentile speed."

Maryland jurisdictions pretend they are protecting children in school zones, but this is just a public relations gimmick. Several governments have been caught creating new zones on streets without schools just to set up a camera trap, and ticketing takes place during hours when students are nowhere to be found.

The District at least has taken a small step forward recently by raising limits in a number of locations. More needs to be done. All jurisdictions need to implement the safe, realistic speed limits that eliminate the profit incentive to set up camera traps.

The Washington Times

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