Md. Bill for Speed Cameras Near Schools and Work Zones Now Heads to Governor

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 11, 2009

Maryland lawmakers yesterday authorized the use of cameras to catch speeding drivers in school zones and highway work areas across the state, breaking a deadlock on the issue that had kept the cameras confined to Montgomery County in recent years.

Under a bill approved yesterday by the House of Delegates and the Senate last month, the state can station the cameras near highway work areas. Counties and towns will be able to decide whether to use them in half-mile zones around schools.

The measure will now head to Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), who has pushed the legislation as a way to slow down drivers and reduce vehicle accidents. An O'Malley spokesman yesterday hailed the approved measure, calling it a "valuable piece of public safety legislation."

The District uses cameras to monitor speeding; they are not allowed in Virginia. In Maryland, jurisdictions in the Washington area might move quickly to join Montgomery in using the cameras.

Prince George's County had made passage of legislation allowing the cameras a top priority this year, and a spokesman for County Executive Jack B. Johnson said yesterday that he will ask the County Council to take up the issue after the bill is signed. Towns and cities in Prince George's also supported the measure. Bowie Mayor G. Frederick Robinson said yesterday that he believes the city will move to put up cameras near some of its 14 schools.

Under the bill, the cameras could snap photos of the license plates of cars going at least 12 miles over the speed limit in school zones between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m. on weekdays. A $40 ticket would then be mailed to the car owner.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) predicted that many jurisdictions across the state will install speed camera programs quickly, given their dire budget circumstances. "Because of the economy, it's going to be embraced immediately," he said.

Opponents of the cameras believe they are a governmental intrusion of privacy and they presume drivers are guilty, providing them limited ability to challenge the ticket. They also fear local governments will use them largely to raise revenue.

"Freedom's not lost in one fell swoop -- it's lost one camera at a time," Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr. (R-Cecil) said yesterday before voting against the measure.

Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold (R) said yesterday he has no plans to seek speed cameras in his county despite the legislature's action.

"I believe it is a greater deterrent to have a police officer directly engage" the speeder, he said. "There is a certain amount of shame involved when there is direct contact with an officer.''

Advocates of the cameras argue that they relieve police officers from patrolling roads for speeders and encourage drivers to slow down. "If we believe there should be a speed limit, we should believe in enforcing it," said Del. Doyle L. Niemann (D-Prince George's).

The legislature has been conflicted in recent years on the use of cameras to ticket drivers. It agreed to allow Montgomery to experiment with a camera pilot program in 2006, overriding a veto by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R). But a compromise between the House and Senate to allow the cameras elsewhere died last year on the final day of the legislative session when Miller, fearing a filibuster from hesitant senators, failed to bring the bill up for a vote.

Its passage this year was not without drama. The Senate first rejected the measure by one vote before several senators, including Miller, changed their minds and backed the bill a day later.

Montgomery's pilot program has allowed the county to use cameras on some residential roads. The legislature agreed yesterday to let Montgomery and its municipalities keep those cameras, even though other jurisdictions will be limited to using the devices in school and work zones.

In other ways, however, Montgomery will have to adjust its program to abide by the new law.

Montgomery now tickets drivers going at least 10 mph over the speed limit; that will change to 12 mph over the limit. Municipalities in the county could also lose some funds because the new law limits the profit any jurisdiction receives from camera-generated tickets to 10 percent of the town or county's total revenue. All additional money would be sent to the state.

The General Assembly also could soon give final approval to a measure making it illegal to text message while driving. The House and Senate yesterday were trying to work out minor differences between bills on the issue passed by the two chambers.

Staff writers Lori Aratani and John Wagner contributed to this report.

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