The debate over whether red-light cameras benefit public safety or simply abet -- and enrich -- Big Brother's intrusiveness has arrived in the city of Frederick, where officials are studying the possibility of installing the devices to regulate traffic at its most dangerous intersections.
In another sign of the city's transformation from a rural county seat into a busy suburb, the Frederick Police Department urged the Board of Aldermen last month to authorize the establishment of a red-light camera program in the city. After fielding questions about their efficacy and need, the police department is expected to return to City Hall in the next few weeks with statistics and studies for elected officials to consider.
"The city is growing, people are coming, and everybody's in a hurry," Police Chief Kim C. Dine said.
But the proposal already has generated some sparks.
"They're horrible. They should be banished from the face of the Earth," said Sen. Alex X. Mooney (R-Frederick), who has introduced legislation to eliminate them.
A mounted red-light camera takes pictures of a vehicle after sensors detect that the traffic light has turned red and the offending vehicle has entered the intersection. Although early models took snapshots, newer devices record several seconds of digital videotape.
Mooney, whose district includes Frederick and Washington counties, knows about red-light cameras firsthand. He said he had to take a day off work to contest a red-light camera violation in Prince George's County after someone stole his 1999 Saturn before the 2003 General Assembly session. Another such ticket was slapped on his car in Virginia. Both tickets were dismissed.
Mooney said he objects to a practice that treats people as guilty before proven innocent. He said the devices are nothing more than an underhanded effort by cash-strapped municipalities to raise money. "They're un-American," he said.
In 2003, the city of Frederick had 69 accidents at intersections controlled by traffic signals, and the primary cause was red-light running, said Lt. Shawn Martyak.
The most likely candidates for the red-light cameras are the busy intersections along Route 40 west of Frederick, a four-lane strip of fast-food chains, shopping plazas and malls known as "the Golden Mile." The road also runs east and west between heavily traveled Interstate 70 and Route 15.
In 2003, the year for which the most recent statistics are available, the Maryland State Highway Administration counted 15 accidents at the intersection of Route 40 and Hillcrest Drive, said MHA spokeswoman Kellie Boulware.
Other problem Route 40 intersections include those at Baughman's Lane and McCain Drive, Thomas Johnson Drive and Oppossumtown Pike.
If adopted, the city would join a growing list of jurisdictions that have contracted with vendors to install red-light cameras.
Howard County was the first jurisdiction in Maryland to use red-light cameras. Maryland and Virginia are among 14 states that employ the devices, as does the District.
Supporters say the devices are reliable and, if installed correctly, fair.
A red-light camera on H Street NE was one of 37 set up in the District beginning in August 1999. By June 2000, police had repositioned the camera after many complaints. The H Street camera racked up as much as $10,000 a day while monitoring an unconventional traffic light at an intersection that wasn't really an intersection until it was repositioned in 2000.
In Bethesda, a camera collected more than $1 million before county officials readjusted it. That was because the device had been installed at a traffic light that changed from yellow to red in three seconds, after a succession of intersections at which yellow lights lasted four seconds.
Frederick police cited a nationwide 2001 Harris Poll that found a 3 to 1 majority favored using the cameras and findings in jurisdictions near and far attesting to their efficacy in lowering red-light violations and accidents. Howard has had a 40 percent reduction in side-impact collisions on its monitored roadways since the county began using the devices in 1998, said Howard police Lt. Patricia Orbin.
Violations, meanwhile, have dropped 70 percent. Studies also have shown that red-light violations decrease even at unmonitored intersections that are in the vicinity of red-light cameras.
Dine dismissed concerns about their intrusiveness. First of all, no one has a right to privacy on a public street, he said.
If anything, he said, a traffic stop by a uniformed officer is potentially more intrusive. It's certainly more costly: a red-light camera violation would be a civil infraction that costs $75 and imposes no points on a driver's license. The average moving violation cited by a police officer costs more and carries points that can raise a person's car insurance premiums.
Although some object that a person could be cited unfairly because someone else was driving the car at the time, people who are cited can have the ticket cleared if they provide proof that someone else was driving.
In that regard, Dine said, the violations are not much different than parking tickets. Safeguards also are built in to make sure that someone who was ticketed unfairly -- while participating in a funeral procession, for example -- can be cleared.
Finally, Dine said the cameras are not intended as revenue-raising devices, since revenue drops as people begin paying attention more closely.
"It's an efficient way for enhancing traffic control," Dine said. "But it's not a panacea. These kinds of cameras are just one more tool."
Alderman Donna Kuzemchak Ramsburg said the city's meteoric growth in recent years also has hastened its daily pace and reduced its civility.
"I see more people coming in from areas that maybe weren't so friendly," Kuzemchak Ramsburg said. She said the red-light cameras might help people think of others and think again before blowing through a red light because they're in a hurry.
"At first I was concerned about it just putting them in because it seemed a little Big Brother-ish to me," she said. But she also said few constituents have expressed their opposition to it, and most seemed to endorse the idea.
Alderman Joseph W. Baldi said there are intersections whose dangers trouble him, but he too raised civil liberties concerns.
"At what point does safety overshadow personal rights?" he asked.