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Lawmakers debate eliminating speed cameras in Maryland

Saturday - 2/23/2013, 7:24am  ET

Ari Ashe, wtop.com

ANNAPOLIS, Md. - While most eyes in Annapolis are focused on gun control and the gas tax, several bills to address speed cameras are being actively discussed, including one measure that would eliminate the cameras altogether.

State Sen. E.J. Pipkin, R-Cecil, introduced the bill on Feb. 1.

"We've had three years of experience related to this," Pipkin said at a Senate Judicial Proceedings hearing on Wednesday in reference to Baltimore, which scrapped its speed camera system after several drivers received bogus tickets.

Pipkin says drivers are more likely to change their behavior if a police officer pulls them over to issue a ticket. He says receiving a ticket in the mail makes drivers feel as though Big Brother is watching.

Among the supporters of the measure is Will Foreman, the owner of Eastover Auto Supply.

"You all remember Groundhog Day. Bill Murray wakes up to relieve the same previous day. Reading the Sun's exposé (on Baltimore speed cameras) has been my version of that same movie. It's a nightmare," Foreman says.

When Baltimore did away with its program, the city admitted that several cameras had a 5 percent error rate. For example, Daniel Doty received a ticket last April for going 38 mph, even though the car was stopped at red light.

"The Maryland speed camera has become a continuing series of lies and broken promises," says Ron Ely, founder and editor of Stop Big Brother Maryland, a group focused on getting rid of speed cameras in the state. "We were promised there would be no contingent fee contracts. There are contingent fee contracts. This led to the problem in Baltimore."

Ely proposes increasing speeding tickets in school zones from $40 to $80 and then using the extra $40 to pay for officers to patrol school zones.

"There are many people who believe we need stricter of enforcement of speed limits in school zones. I have two kids, so I feel strongly about this myself, but it's police that are the right way to do this," Ely says.

Cheryl Jaffe testified that she thinks speed cameras have eliminated due process in the justice system.

"Before the hearings, the judge told a roomful of people that he wouldn't take any defense other than contact information for another driver. Without evidence I was already presumed guilty," she says.

Jaffe also talked about her experience in court.

"It was a lot me asking for the evidence and being told ‘no, no, no and by the way, you're guilty and here's a fine on top of the fee,'" says Jaffe.

AAA Mid-Atlantic agrees that many judges don't give drivers a fair shake in court. Engineers also say that cameras work, but only when used correctly.

"They work, if carefully used, calibrated and installed. But there have been document instances of spurious readings from reflections, large trucks nearby and other vehicles moving within the field of view of radar," says Christopher Davis, professor of engineering at the University of Maryland.

Davis says he doesn't take a position on speed cameras, themselves. Others vocally defended the cameras and their effectiveness.

"The speed cameras work. They save lives," says Forest Heights Mayor Jacqueline Goodall. "How many children's lives do we save? I don't want to find out. I don't want to have to tell somebody's mother that their child is dead."

Goodall mentioned that a speed camera on Indian Head Highway, just south of Livingston Road is one example of a camera that has slowed drivers down.

Kevin Best, town attorney for Forest Heights, says there were 30 crashes at that intersection between 2007 and 2010. That number has since dropped more than 50 percent.

"To abolish the use of speed cameras altogether would be a very extreme measure. It would be tantamount to throwing out the baby with the bathwater," Best says.

Major Robert Liberati, who runs the Prince George's County camera program, also says the cameras work.

"Our violations have dropped from our high month of 50,000 to a low month of 25,000," he says. "In 2011, we had 105 fatalities. In 2012, we had 82. It's obvious that things are working."

"Over time, when we take a review of the problems, it's not the technology or the equipment, it's the human error in managing and operating these programs properly," says Capt. Thomas Didone, who runs the Montgomery County Police camera program.

Didone says credibility in speed cameras is compromised when police do not void erroneous tickets that shouldn't have been mailed out to drivers.

Pipkin's bill isn't likely to pass the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, but could influence other bills from Senators Jamie Raskin and Jim Brochin to tweak the current speed camera programs.

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