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Innovative or ‘creepy’? Maryland suburb considers cameras to catch drivers on their phones

(iStock/Maryland’s largest jurisdiction reviewed a bill this week that would allow them to consider highway cameras that catch drivers using their phones.)

Most people know it is dangerous, and all but two states consider it illegal. But many motorists still drive while texting, contributing to crashes that kill more than 3,000 a year in the United States.

Now, a Maryland suburb sometimes derided as a “nanny state” is debating a controversial new program that would let authorities catch such drivers in the act.

Montgomery County Council member Tom Hucker (D-District 5) is asking the state legislature for permission to consider installing highway cameras that record drivers using their phones and fine them for the offense. If implemented, it could be the first such program in the country, and among the first in the world, national experts say.

The monitoring system would work like red-light and speeding cameras, except that instead of license plates, it would capture what drivers are doing inside their vehicles, officials said. Police officers — or artificial intelligence — would review footage to identify violators.

In a suburb where more residents die in road collisions than in homicides, and where calls for pedestrian safety have reached an all-time high, Hucker and some of his colleagues argue that drastic action is needed to enforce laws against distracted driving. But other Montgomery officials — along with local law enforcement, national motor clubs, and even some traffic safety advocates — are skeptical, citing concerns with effectiveness and privacy.

“This technology is creepy to me in a peeping Tom type of way,” said John Townsend, a public affairs manager at AAA Mid-Atlantic, which represents 1 million motorists in Maryland. “It’s too invasive.”

Hucker, who chairs the county’s transportation committee, said that concern should not stop the county from considering a monitoring system.

“We’ve heard these [arguments] all before,” he said, noting that when Maryland first considered red light and speed cameras — both now commonplace nationwide — opponents talked about privacy, too.

“There’s no expectation of privacy when you’re in a public place,” Hucker said. “The bottom line is we have far too many serious crashes.”

Distracted driving in Maryland has declined in recent years, with an eight percent drop from 2011 to 2015, according to the state’s Motor Vehicle Administration. But in 2017, there were still more than 56,000 crashes involving a distracted driver.

Some officials predict that as drivers grow increasingly reliant on smartphones, and as Generation Zers take the wheel, the problem may worsen. In a recent AAA survey, 66 percent of respondents said they notice more drivers distracted by electronic devices on the road now than two years ago.

Maryland outlawed the use of handheld phones while driving in 2013, though some state officials say existing fines — $75 for the first offense, $125 for the second offense, and $175 for subsequent offenses — are not effective. In 2018, for the third year in a row, a bill to raise the penalty for distracted driving to $500 failed in the state Senate.

When the Montgomery County Council reviewed the state bill to allow them to consider the new camera program, Hucker said a monitoring system would give officials “one more tool in the toolbox to enforce the laws that are already in the books.”

Council member Will Jawando (D-At Large), a civil rights attorney, sharply disagreed, voicing concerns about where cameras would be placed and whether drivers could be racially profiled or otherwise wrongly targeted.

“There are serious, serious privacy concerns here,” Jawando said from the dais at the Monday session. “I think this is a really dangerous path to go down.”

Townsend said AAA is withholding a formal position on the proposal until more information is available on what camera system the county might consider. Based on what he has seen on the market so far, however, he said he “wouldn’t recommend that any jurisdiction adopt this kind of technology.”

A spokesman for Hucker said his office has not settled on a camera system and is still reviewing companies.

Among them is Acusensus, an Australia-based company that recently expanded to North America and is working with the Australian state of New South Wales on that country’s first distracted driving monitoring program. It launched this week following a six-month trial.

A California-based spokesperson for the company did not return calls and messages on Thursday. But CNBC reported the company uses a system of fixed and transportable cameras to capture footage that is reviewed by artificial intelligence. During the trial period in New South Wales, it scanned 8.5 million vehicles and identified 100,000 drivers on their phones.

Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, said when it comes to other traffic violations, such as speeding, camera systems that allow authorities to identify violations and impose fines are the most effective form of enforcement.

A spokesman for County Executive Marc Elrich (D) said he has not taken a position on the state bill seeking permission to consider the program. At the Monday meeting, Montgomery’s council initially voted 5-3 not to take a position on the bill, but later decided to defer taking a position until after the General Assembly’s legislative session begins in January.

Council staff recommended that the council not take a position, writing that it “does not know of any U.S. jurisdictions using this technology and has no data regarding effectiveness.”

Sara Morningstar, of Montgomery’s Office of Intergovernmental Relations, said the police department and county attorney have expressed “serious concerns” over the bill. Police Capt. Tom Didone, director of the traffic division, recommended that the county consider other methods, including an inspection “blitz” where officers not usually involved in traffic enforcement are deployed to identify distracted drivers.

Council member Andrew Friedson (D-District 1) said it would be “premature” for the council to endorse the bill given the questions surrounding its implementation. “I don’t think we’re anywhere close to a point in time where we should be deciding how to vote,” he said.

But these reservations will not stop the effort from moving forward.

Sen. Jeff Waldstreicher (D-Montgomery) said he plans to introduce the bill in Annapolis on behalf of Hucker. Because it is a “local-enabling bill” that would apply only to the county, it must first be approved by the Montgomery County delegation before proceeding to the full General Assembly.

Montgomery has long served as a site for Maryland to test bold traffic initiatives, said Hucker, who is himself a former state delegate. In the 1990s, it was among the first counties to introduce automated cameras to catch red-light runners. In 2013, it was the first jurisdiction in the state to adopt Capital Bikeshare.

“All we’re doing is asking the state to give us the authority to debate this,” Hucker said. “There’s no rational argument why we shouldn’t seek authority so we can actually decide whether we want to do this or not.”

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