Maryland Senate Revives Bill on Speed Cameras

Ben German works in a Montgomery mobile speed camera unit. Maryland lawmakers are considering legislation to allow speed cameras outside Montgomery.
Ben German works in a Montgomery mobile speed camera unit. Maryland lawmakers are considering legislation to allow speed cameras outside Montgomery. (Photos By Mark Gail -- The Washington Post)   |   Buy Photo
By Dan Morse and Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, April 3, 2009

Vandals have spray-painted the cameras and fired paintball pellets at them. One motorist addressed a letter of complaint about them to the "Extortion Enforcement Unit." A passenger in a car on Georgia Avenue expressed himself by pushing his bare backside out an opened hatchback as the camera clicked. More-polite critics say they are creepy and intrusive.

But in the two years since Montgomery County became the first jurisdiction in Maryland to install speed cameras, they have helped make roads safer, county police say. The cameras have generated more than 500,000 citations, at $40 a pop, netting more than $16 million, after expenses, for local governments in Montgomery.

And yesterday the legislature in Annapolis took a big step toward allowing the cameras throughout Maryland.

The state Senate killed the idea Wednesday night, after an opponent read aloud from George Orwell's novel "Nineteen Eighty-Four." But senators reversed course yesterday, reviving the bill and passing it, 27 to 20. The bill would permit the cameras in work and school zones.

The House, which in the past has been supportive of similar bills, is expected to vote next week. The legislation is a priority for Gov. Martin O'Malley (D).

The roadside cameras have proliferated across the country since the first were installed in Arizona two decades ago, according to Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which supports the cameras. They were installed in the District in 2001 and have reduced speeding dramatically, police said. Virginia has resisted their use because of civil liberties concerns.

The county and four municipalities -- Chevy Chase, Gaithersburg, Rockville and Takoma Park -- operate the cameras in Montgomery. The county operates the largest number, 54 cameras. At seven locations studied, speeds decreased an average of 22 percent after cameras were installed, according to county police.

"We've been out there for 80-plus years trying to enforce speed limits," said Capt. John Damskey, head of the county police traffic section. "Speed cameras are a technology that is proven to work and effect change 365 days a year, 24 hours a day."

In Chevy Chase, cameras were installed on a heavily traveled stretch of Connecticut Avenue, and the number of motorists roaring through the 30 mph zone at 50 to 59 mph fell by 73 percent, officials said. The number of crashes also fell, from 67 in the year before the cameras were installed to 44 in the year after.

"Sanity and civility have returned to Connecticut Avenue," said Geoff Biddle, the Chevy Chase village manager.

The village of Chevy Chase cleared $1.6 million after expenses from its four speed cameras in 2008, a sum equal to a third of its annual budget.

Officials said the purpose of the cameras is not to bring in revenue. It is a mark of the program's success when the number of citations goes down, they said.

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