Growing number of Maryland municipalities using speed cameras

The first year the two speed cameras went up on Annapolis Road in Landover Hills, they produced $1.3 million in fines and enough cash for the town to buy a vehicle to enforce the speed limit.

That may not seem like much in a region that routinely collects millions of dollars in traffic-enforcement fines, but the money made a difference for the northern Prince George’s County town of fewer than 2,000 people.

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Landover Hills is one of a growing number of Maryland jurisdictions that use automated cameras to catch speeders. For some, the programs have added a valuable source of revenue, but often accompanied by legal challenges and a public perception that the cameras are being used as moneymakers rather than to improve safety.

In a recent Washington Post poll on transportation and other regional issues, 50 percent of Maryland residents said they supported speed cameras and 47 percent were against them, similar to the levels of support across the entire Washington region.

Speed camera programs have expanded quickly across Maryland since the state approved them in 2009. As many as 50 Maryland municipalities have speed cameras or red-light programs or both, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a research groups based in Arlington County.

Commuters driving in Prince George’s, in particular, have dozens of cameras to watch out for. The county and most of its 27 incorporated municipalities have the programs.

“They just continue to grow and grow and grow. Within a small radius [in the Forest Heights area], you have six cameras,” said Will Foreman, owner of Eastover Auto Supply.

Foreman said he has found inaccuracies in the citations issued to his employees and has spent two years contesting them in court. “It has nothing to do with law enforcement — it’s all about generating revenue,” he said.

Prince George’s residents are evenly split on speed cameras, according to the poll, which was conducted June 19 to 23 among a random sample of 1,106 Washington area adults.

“The challenge is always public perception,” said Riverdale Park Police Chief David C. Morris, whose department operates four speed cameras. “It is the other 50 percent that we need to continue to convince.”

Local government and police officials say the cameras enhance public safety. But critics assert that the governments are setting up speed traps to fatten their budgets. Some jurisdictions, including Riverdale Park and Landover Hills, have added a “speed camera” line to their budgets, specifying how much money they expect to collect.

Hyattsville, which turned on its first two speed cameras in March, voted in April to allow up to 10 cameras in the city, which is about three square miles.

Landover Hills, with a police force of five officers, is investing some of its speed-camera cash on a new, camera-equipped car to stop more speeders.

“There is a problem with speed everywhere,” said Police Chief Henry Norris. “You are getting people going 60 and 70 miles an hour” in a stretch of Route 450, where the limit is 35 mph.

Landover Hills has two speed cameras, two blocks from St. Mary’s Catholic School on Annapolis Road. Together, they generated $1.3 million in fiscal 2012. The town’s total revenues that year were $2.7 million, according to a report filed with the Maryland comptroller.

After expenses, the revenue from the fines was $580,000, according to the report. By law, Landover Hills could keep only $266,000, up to 10 percent of the town's revenue. The state got the rest.

Ron Ely, a Montgomery County resident who tracks Maryland’s camera initiatives, is concerned about small jurisdictions, which have gained a funding source that can significantly boost their budgets.

“They don’t have to care about the people that live outside the town,” said Ely, founder of the Maryland Drivers Alliance, which opposes automated traffic enforcement. “They don’t need to care what commuters think.”

Local officials are bombarded with complaints from commuters about unreliable equipment and inaccurate camera readings. Jurisdictions have to deal with lawsuits, court hearings and costly technology hiccups.

Last month, Greenbelt officials said the town would issue refunds for 660 speed camera tickets after it found that two cameras were not properly calibrated.

Two years ago, Cheverly ended a contract with Optotraffic, which provided and maintained the town’s camera equipment, after the town discovered several inaccurate readings, including a speed camera that recorded a bicycle at 57 mph.

Riverdale Park recently faced a class-action lawsuit claiming that tens of thousands of speed camera tickets were invalid because they were not properly approved by a police officer. The case was dismissed in May, but it was a delicate topic for town officials, who feared that a win would have cost the town millions of dollars.

Larger jurisdictions have also had their share of setbacks. In late July, Charles County suspended the use of its three speed cameras because at least one was installed outside the school zone signs, in violation of state law. The county is reviewing its program.

Under Maryland law, speed cameras can be used only within half a mile of a school, and the hours of enforcement are limited to between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m. The Maryland State Highway Administration can also use speed cameras in work zones.

Recent issues with the speed camera law have shaped public opinion, said Jonathan Adkins, deputy executive director at the Governors Highway Safety Association. Maryland is known as a national leader in the use of automated speed enforcement and has seen its share of concerns that cameras are being used as revenue enhancers.

But Maryland’s programs work, Adkins said.

“When the public thinks they are going to get a ticket, they slow down,” he said. In areas where speed cameras have been used for years, citations have decreased, leading law enforcement officials to conclude that the cameras help deter speeding — to a degree.

“Do the cameras help? They help in the school zone, but once folks get past it, they go right back to speeding,” Norris said. “You can see the people flying down the road.”

Capital Insight pollsters Scott Clement and Peyton M. Craighill contributed to this report. Capital Insight is the independent polling group of Washington Post Media.

 
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