Prince George's to use mobile speed cameras in school zones

By Jonathan Mummolo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 9, 2010

After winning a protracted battle last year for the right to use cameras to ticket drivers for speeding, Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson now says a plan to install fixed cameras in dozens of school zones will be scrapped.

Johnson (D) said Friday that he plans to work with police officials to instead put several mobile camera units in operation. He said the number of units has not been decided, but it will be "much less" than 50, the number of school sites his spokesman, James P. Keary, cited late last year.

"It seems to me like it's more a revenue-raising issue than public safety, and it's going to take too many dollars out of the hands of our citizens," Johnson said of the fixed-camera plan. "Many of them are overstretched. It doesn't mean that I'm not going to go forward. What it means is that I'm going to tailor a program to focus particularly on public safety."

Opponents have long argued that the devices are a government intrusion on privacy and an unfair way to raise money. The cameras are permitted under a Maryland law passed last year that came after intense lobbying by the Johnson administration.

Several state delegates and two County Council members, Chairman Thomas E. Dernoga (D-Laurel) and William A. Campos (D-Hyattsville), said Friday that they were unaware Johnson had decided to abandon fixed cameras, a development first reported in the Prince George's Gazette.

"If the county government didn't want it, they shouldn't have spent the whole last legislative session fighting for it," said Del. Justin D. Ross (D-Prince George's), who supported the state law. "It's the right public policy. . . . If you're speeding in school zones, you deserve what you get."

Although county officials have said the program's aim was to enhance public safety, not to raise revenue, Johnson cited revenue as part of the reason to go with only mobile units. He said projections for the original proposal showed an estimated 124,000 tickets being issued in the first year, which would rake in more than $3 million, but only about $100,000 for the county, if it collected on 65 percent of issued tickets.

"There's no way I could justify it to the citizens: that kind of ticket revenue and only $100,000 coming to the county," Johnson said. "It's not a revenue-raising issue, but citizens would expect that if you're going to raise those kinds of revenues, that it goes to the public."

Johnson insisted he had not "changed course," and Keary said Friday that the original number of 50 sites referred to eligible sites, not a figure set in stone.

John B. Townsend II, manager of public and governmental affairs at AAA Mid-Atlantic, hailed Johnson's decision to scale back the program.

"He's the first person who put integrity over the show-me-the-money mentality," Townsend said. "I'm thunderstruck by it. I think motorists will be thunderstruck by it."

After a 30-day grace period, the tickets that the cameras generate for motorists going 12 mph or more above the speed limit will carry a $40 fine and will not add points to driver's licenses.

Montgomery County has had the cameras in place for several years, and some municipalities in Prince George's are reportedly moving ahead with plans to install them. State highway officials have a mobile camera in place in a construction zone on Interstate 95 in the Laurel area.

Prince George's has repeatedly led the state in traffic deaths, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration figures.

Staff writer Ashley Halsey III contributed to this report.

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