- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 30, 2003

Baltimore's top District Court judge says he is suspicious over whether the city is using red-light cameras merely to make the roads safer.
Sometimes city officials "are more focused on revenue than they are on safety," District Court Administrative Judge Keith E. Mathews said in an interview with The Washington Times.
Judge Mathews supervises the court that hears all traffic-ticket cases in Baltimore. He said he wrote an 11-page report questioning the city's red-light camera ticketing system because he was receiving too many complaints from motorists that the system was unfair and wrongly motivated. His comments, first reported by the Baltimore Sun, were circulated among the mayor's staff and the city Department of Transportation.
"People just get in a frenzy about it," the judge said. "They actually went out with video cameras and stopwatches. That's how serious they were."
Judge Mathews says one of the most glaring problems in the city's red-light camera system is a shutter grace period that is shortened to the point of being almost imperceptible.
An infraction caught by the camera, he said, could be something "an officer wouldn't be able to see with the naked eye."
The grace period is the time between when the light turns red and when a picture is snapped and a citation generated. In other jurisdictions around the country using red-light cameras, the average grace period is 0.3 to 0.5 seconds. In Baltimore, it is 0.01 seconds.
That is why people don't trust the system as a traffic-enforcement tool, the judge said.
"A lot of people don't like it because they get to the light a tenth of a second too late and they get a ticket. And then they tend to think, 'This is just a money-grabbing situation,'" Judge Mathews said.
The fine for a red-light traffic violation is $75.
Judge Mathews noted in his report that 92,088 red-light camera citations were issued in 2000, generating $6,906,600 in supplemental revenue, and 83,385 red-light camera citations were issued in 2001, generating $6,253,875 in revenue. His report didn't address the decrease in the number of red-light tickets generated in 2001 compared with 2000.
The Baltimore Department of Transportation contracts with Dallas-based Affiliated Computer Systems Inc., which operates the cameras and receives 15 percent to 36 percent of the revenue, or $11 to $27 from each citation. On the sliding scale, revenue decreases as the number of citations rises. The city's red-light camera program is one of the country's largest, with 47 operational cameras, the report noted.
Judge Mathews suggested that the cameras would be just as effective at catching true violators if it had a wider grace period. "I don't think raising the grace period would in any way hurt public safety," he said. It would, however, decrease income that the camera system generates for the city.
Judge Mathews said he also has received numerous complaints that yellow lights are too short and sometimes inconsistent even at the same light.
His report mentioned a light at the intersection of Falls Road and Northern Parkway with a listed standard yellow-light time of 3.5 seconds. The federal standard is 3 to 6 seconds. Judge Mathews argued that Baltimore's red-light cameras were set too closely to the lower range of that standard and sometimes a tenth of a second short of the bottom limit.
ACS Inc. also runs camera systems for Fairfax County, Prince George's County, the District and about 50 other cities nationwide.
Judge Mathews said the incentive for both ACS and Baltimore is the same: "to make sure as many citations are issued as possible."
He suggested that a flat fee, rather than a sliding scale, could improve public opinions of the cameras.
"The idea is to get people to more readily accept this new technology," he said. "I do believe that red-light cameras can prevent accidents if used properly and can be used in the interest of the public. But I think the public needs to accept them."
The city's response has been tepid. Mayor Martin O'Malley sent a letter to Judge Mathews thanking him for the report and promising that the city would respond.
Transportation officials invited Judge Mathews to a meeting, where they explained their program and asked him for input.
Alfred H. Foxx, Baltimore's director of transportation, said Judge Mathews "was satisfied with the briefing and appreciated us taking the time to clarify some key points for him."
Mr. Foxx said the Department of Transportation emphasized that the camera system was "not all based on revenue," but was "one we look at for safety."
Judge Mathews suspects that changes to the system will be minimal.
"They realize that they need to do this if they want the public to accept the system," Judge Mathews said. "They've shown a desire to perhaps try and convince the public as to how much good these lights are doing."
But he said, "I'm not sure they've indicated they're actually going to change anything. I don't think they're going to do very much on it."
Mr. Foxx said: "I really think our program is a good program. We are constantly evaluating the program, trying to ensure that it is efficient. Right now, we've looked at the report [from Judge Mathews] and as of this date we have not made any changes."
The report has no legal or legislative teeth.
Judge Mathews said a motorist with a lot of money and patience could force a judicial ruling on red-light cameras by taking a traffic case to the Court of Appeals.
AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman Lon Anderson said Judge Mathews' report would help generate momentum for statewide regulations on automated traffic enforcement.
The judge's report "helps keep the pot stirred," Mr. Anderson said. "It's not going to cause anything to happen, but if there's enough evidence put out there by credible sources, it will force change."

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