- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 12, 2019

The Montgomery County Council is looking at a new camera technology that capture photos of drivers texting as a means to reduce distracted driving; however, some lawmakers are hesitant to move forward on it over privacy concerns.

“We have an epidemic of serious crashes from distracted driving,” Council Vice President Tom Hucker, District 5 Democrat, told The Washington Times. “We have 38,000 around the state each year, and they are associated with far too many fatalities and serious injuries, and no one has proposed a workable solution to addressing that.”

During a hearing last week at which the council reviewed 2020 Maryland General Assembly proposals, lawmakers discussed a bill that would authorize the county to install on roadways automated cameras that can take pictures of motorists while they are using their phones and driving. Mr. Hucker asked state Sen. Jeff Waldstreicher to introduce the legislation in the assembly.

New South Wales, Australia, is the only jurisdiction in the world that has implemented such a program. Its automated system uses artificial intelligence to detect illegal cellphone use in cars, which is then reviewed by a person to determine a violation.

Council member Will Jawando, at-large Democrat, told his colleagues at the hearing that this is a bad idea.

In an interview with The Times, Mr. Jawando raised a number of concerns about distracted driving cameras, saying it might lead down a “slippery slope” or to “mission creep.”

Because the technology is new, there is no data to show its effectiveness or whether its algorithms are biased, he said. Looking into someone’s car with a camera could constitute an illegal search under the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution, he added.

“Because of all those reasons and many more, we shouldn’t be getting this far out in front on an untested technology,” Mr. Jawando said.

His office, he said, is participating in a regional effort to combat distracted driving with “Driving It Home,” an education campaign he is launching in the county next month. It will involve events at local high schools to educate students on the dangers of distracted driving.

Additionally, Mr. Jawando said he wants to try out some of the ideas proposed by police Capt. Thomas Didone, director of the Traffic Division.

Capt. Didone, who also opposed the bill, suggested at the hearing conducting “blitz” days for distracted driving enforcement and changing the driver’s license point system to include penalties for distracted driving.

Mr. Hucker says the plan is not that different than the county’s red-light and school-bus camera programs, except those cameras aren’t authorized to ticket distracted drivers.

“I understand some of the concerns that have cropped up, but I think people should understand that they are being filmed all the time when they are on the roads,” he said. “They have a responsibility to everybody else. There is no expectation of privacy [in your car], and nobody in the government is trying to track their behavior.”

Mr. Hucker said his office is meeting with companies that provide similar services, such as Drive Safe Enforcement, a Baltimore-based firm that does not use artificial intelligence to monitor distracted driving.

Company co-owner Norman McCarthy said Drive Safe vehicles are mounted with cameras that have a 360-degree view. The operator drives around and timestamps the video footage anytime they see a distracted driver. A second person then reviews the footage and passes it along to law enforcement.

Mr. McCarthy said that, on average, his operators see a minimum of 15 distracted drivers an hour and that he is working with the town of Bel Air to deploy his company’s vehicles there.

• Sophie Kaplan can be reached at skaplan@washingtontimes.com.

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