ANNAPOLIS – The pictures taken by red-light cameras can be so blurry that sometimes an “M” on a license plate looks like an “N”, or vice versa, said Delegate Kevin Kelly, D-Allegany.
Such mistakes snared two Cumberland men, who received $75 citations in the mail from Baltimore Police, each with a picture of a vehicle that did not belong to them.
Kelly, a Cumberland attorney, appealed on their behalf to Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley’s office, but simply received a form letter six weeks later saying the tickets still had to be paid.
Fed up with what he said are inaccuracies and “intimidation” by the government on this issue, Kelly introduced a bill in the General Assembly to monitor red-light cameras. His bill calls for a six-member task force, appointed by the governor, to ensure red-light camera integrity and prevent municipalities and private vendors from unjustly profiting from their use.
The task force would focus on the cameras’ accuracy, their effectiveness in deterring violations and reducing accidents, ensuring uniform yellow-light intervals statewide and changing fee structures to compensate vendors who help police operate the devices.
“There is merit to (the use of the cameras), but it’s becoming one hell of a big moneymaker for the municipalities,” Kelly said. “And when you get vendors that take 25 percent of the money (per citation), it’s got a rotten, putrid odor to it.”
The Office of Transportation in Baltimore has administered the city’s 47 red-light cameras since November, working with contractor Lockheed Martin IMS to operate and install them, collect and process the film and review the photographs.
Lockheed’s share varies anywhere from 15 to 36 percent per citation, depending on the number issued, said Adrienne Barnes, spokeswoman for the office. The more citations issued, the less the vendor gets, Barnes said.
The office is negotiating with Lockheed about a potential switch to a flat monthly fee, Barnes said.
Delegate Michael V. Dobson, D-Baltimore, agrees with the bill – his life was saved by a seat belt when his car was struck by a red-light runner four years ago. But Dobson wants to assure that the measure is not a step toward elimination of the cameras.
“We need to find a way to ensure there is no abuse on the part of the municipalities,” in terms of shortening yellow-light intervals and other efforts to make money for themselves and their vendors, Dobson said.
All traffic signals in Baltimore have yellow-light intervals of three seconds, whether they have red-light cameras or not, Barnes said.
The cameras have “drastically reduced” accidents by up to 40 percent at some Baltimore intersections, she said.
A Senate bill calls for eliminating the cameras except in school zones, at railroad crossings, or when police officers are present at a traffic signal to issue a citation on the spot.
But that bill likely will not pass because it asks for too much too soon, said its sponsor, Sen. Alexander X. Mooney, R-Frederick.
Mooney cited a recent example where cars in a police-escorted funeral procession in Baltimore all received red-light camera citations in the mail.
“I find (the cameras) personally offensive,” Mooney said. “They are a big government intrusion on privacy.”
But the American public supports their use, said Cathy Chase, director of state affairs for Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a nonprofit organization that promotes highway safety legislation.
An April 2001 survey of 10 cities by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that favorable opinions about red-light cameras exceeded 70 percent in communities both with and without red-light cameras, with approval ratings slightly higher in communities using them, Chase said in a testimony to the Pennsylvania House Transportation Committee in November.
Approximately 260,000 crashes are caused by red-light runners annually and more than 750 are fatal.
Accusations of privacy invasion and tampering with yellow-light intervals to increase profits are unfounded, Chase said.
“That’s not what motivates police officers to do their jobs,” Chase said. “That’s not what motivates transportation engineers. It’s saving lives. They’re trying to make the roads safer.”
The House bill is scheduled to go before the House Commerce and Government Matters Committee Tuesday.