A judge in a county north of Cincinnati has issued a blistering ruling calling a small town's use of traffic cameras nothing more than a scam — a sensitive subject in the D.C. area where many motorists think automated enforcement is nothing more than a cash cow for local governments.
Hamilton County Common Pleas Court Judge Robert Ruehlman said in a strongly worded seven-page ruling last week that the use of cameras in the 2,200-person town of Elmwood Place amounts to a revenue generating "game."
"I used the term 'game' because Elmwood Place is engaged in nothing more than a high-tech game of 3 card monty. It is a scam that the motorists can't win," Judge Ruehlman said in his ruling.
The decision by the county judge is unlikely to set widespread legal precedent, but the stinging criticism of the program comes at a time when many states and localities, including the District and some areas of Maryland, are questioning traffic camera programs. And while significant differences exist between the way the cameras were deployed in the Ohio community and the way they are used in the D.C. area, observers say such incidents tend to erode public trust in automated enforcement.
"I think people who have paid attention to the issue in any meaningful way, the trust is long gone," said James C. Walker, executive director of the Wisconsin-based National Motorists Association. "Backlash is growing against this over time. More and more people are realizing that the speed camera is about revenue, it's not safety."
In the District, officials have long held the cameras are an effective way to curb speeding and prevent accidents, with Mayor Vincent C. Gray saying last year he hoped to cover "the entire city" with cameras. However, city lawmakers voted last year to reduce the fines that ranged from $75 to $150 for most infractions captured by speed cameras amid a mounting chorus of motorists who said the city was burdening them with pricey traffic-camera fines in an attempt to balance its budget.
The city's automated enforcement program has long been criticized for an overemphasis on revenue collection. In 2005, AAA Mid-Atlantic named the District a "strict enforcement area" — the first time in AAA's 105-year history that an entire city had been so designated. Since then, automated enforcement has been dramatically expanded and last year took in $95.6 million, according to figures provided by the city.
Across the country, 13 states and the District have speed cameras operating in at least one location, while 12 states have passed laws that prohibit their use, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.
Maryland uses its devices, which mostly issue tickets carrying $40 fines, to enforce speed limits in highway work zones. State transportation officials in January said that since they began using speed cameras, work zone-related crashes, fatalities and injuries reached a more than 10-year low, with fatalities decreasing by more than half from nine in 2009 to three in 2011. But a state audit issued last year revealed that the state had problems with its camera implementation, inadequately vetting its vendor and sometimes using uncalibrated equipment.
Six Maryland counties, including Montgomery and Prince George's, and the city of Baltimore operate their own speed cameras in school zones, as do at least 17 municipalities.
In January, officials in Baltimore said they no longer have full confidence in the traffic cameras after an investigation by The Baltimore Sun showed many motorists who should not have received tickets, based on the camera's own photos. A bill pending in the General Assembly, inspired in part by Baltimore's experience, would require among other things that speed cameras provide clear photographic evidence of infractions.
Lawmakers in towns from Illinois to Florida recently considered whether they should reconfigure or shut down their red-light camera programs because they are not worth the cost. They would not be the first traffic camera programs to see an untimely death, after Arizona — an early adopter of automated enforcement — decided in 2010 to shut down its cameras after vandalism and an outcry about the tickets from residents.
John B. Townsend II, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said the situation on Ohio gives motorists reason to question whether cameras are being used responsibly.
"I think it calls into question the integrity of the program — not there, but everywhere," adding that the backlash from the cameras is attributable to their "heavy handed" use by state and local authorities.
The judge in the Ohio cases cited a lack of due process in his ruling, which referred to the camera program as a "scheme" and contained several objections specific to the ordinance the town passed authorizing use of the devices.
Judge Ruehlman said the town did not put up required notice as to the placement of the cameras and objected to the fact that a motorist challenging the $105 citation had to pay a $25 administrative fee with no guarantee the fee would be returned if the appeal were successful. The judge said police department employees who have no personal knowledge of the violation appear as witnesses at appeals hearings, and he also questioned a requirement that a vehicle owner not operating the vehicle at the time of the infraction was forced to name the driver — a situation that could lead, for example, to a husband being forced to provide testimony against his wife.
The Elmwood Place camera that was the subject of the ruling issued about 115 tickets per day, which the judge noted was about $362,250 per month and about $2 million over six months. The town was entitled to 60 percent of the money, while the company that monitored and calibrated the equipment, Lanham-based Optotraffic LLC, collected 40 percent.
Optotraffic is the same company that operated the camera system in the Prince George's County town of Cheverly until August, when town officials complained about inaccurate readings that included a camera catching a bicycle going 57 mph, another bike going 38 mph and an "invisible vehicle" traveling 76 mph.
Cheverly officials were not alone in their complaints about Optotraffic equipment.
Motorists and AAA Mid-Atlantic also have said the company's devices sometimes measure inaccurate speeds and are inferior to those used by other vendors. The company provides and operates speed-monitoring devices for more than a dozen Prince George's municipalities and for the county, which started its speed-camera program in September.
The company insisted its cameras were reliable and said the complaints by town personnel were simply a result of their "lack of understanding" of the equipment.
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