Cities and counties across Maryland are reaping the benefits of revenue from speed cameras, with the money going toward video cameras in police cars, longer police station operating hours and matching funds for federal public safety grants, among other projects.
Montgomery County, for example, which was the first county in the state to install speed cameras in select residential streets and school zones in 2007, estimated that it would receive more than $13 million in net revenue from fines for fiscal year 2010. That money would be divided between the fire department, the police department and pedestrian safety projects.
The county estimated it would receive about $30 million total, with the balance going to the speed camera vendor.
As police departments across the country struggle to hire enough officers to enforce speeding, more jurisdictions are debating whether to install the tracking devices that have proven in studies to reduce speed, a common factor in fatal car crashes.
But the discussion, which locally is now being waged in Howard County, can be contentious.
Opponents say that speed cameras are simply revenue-generating devices for counties that could threaten the privacy of drivers and interfere with due process.
In Laurel, vandals recently painted big splashes of green over a speed camera.
“I’m not in favor of them,” said Doug Howard, an Eldersburg resident who is the president of the Carroll County Board of Commissioners. “I think a lot of jurisdictions use them to generate funds, but I don’t know if they’ve been effective as a traffic deterrent.”
Ticket revenue for Montgomery County in 2010 was earmarked for items such as five police officers for a gang investigative unit, longer operating hours for the Bethesda and Gaithersburg stations and fire station supplies, according to county documents.
Baltimore County, which installed speed cameras as a pilot program last summer, has issued 43,005 tickets from the devices stationed at 15 locations since Nov. 30. In all, the county has charged $1,163,160 in ticket fees from that period.
After vendor costs, the county would have $213,578 left -- money that officials said would go to public safety projects. Nearly $1 million is paid to the vendor.
Speeding and traffic deaths are closely related, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. In a statement to Maryland senators in 2009, the institute said that speeding in 2007 was a contributing factor in 35 percent of 614 total fatal Maryland traffic crashes.
Multiple studies have shown how cameras and warning signs have reduced speeding.
- Montgomery County saw the proportion of drivers going more than 10 mph above the speed limit decrease by 70 percent on roads where speed cameras were placed, according to an Institute study.
- Another Institute study of a 2006 pilot speed camera program on Loop 101, the six-lane highway circling the Phoenix metro area, showed the percentage of vehicles going 10 mph above the 65 mph speed limit drop. It decreased from 15 percent before the cameras, to 1 to 2 percent after they were installed.
- Laurel, which enacted speed cameras with fines on Dec. 22, saw the number of violators driving 12 mph over the 30 mph speed limit on Cherry Lane, the road in front of a high school, drop. It decreased from more than 3,700 before the devices to 700 after, said Police Chief Richard McLaughlin.
“The effect has been phenomenal,” McLaughlin said. “Obviously the reduction in speed is going to reduce the severity of the accident.”
Nearly 90 cities nationally have speed cameras, according to the Institute.
The research, however, has not been as clear on whether the cameras reduce crashes overall.
A camera program showed a drop in speeding citations but not in crashes within a one-eighth and one-quarter mile radius of the cameras.
However, a 2010 review of 28 studies found that injury and fatal crashes fell as much as 60 percent in areas with speed cameras, according to the institute.
The ACLU of Maryland does not oppose speed cameras, says spokeswoman Meredith Curtis, but it is concerned about whether the data gained from the cameras could be used in other ways besides tracking reckless drivers.
“There are no laws in Maryland that limit how long the data from the cameras can be stored or how it can be used,” Curtis wrote in an email. “In addition, the ACLU has due process concerns, because the tickets are sent to the registered owner of the vehicle, who may or may not have been the driver. "
Since the program started in Montgomery County, less than 1 percent of motorists have contested tickets, according to county data.
Those tickets that have been dismissed include one for a driver taking a passenger to the emergency room and a driver getting out of the way of an emergency vehicle, according to a Montgomery County Office of Legislative Oversight analysis of the speed camera program.
In Howard County, Executive Ken Ulman and police officials are among those pushing legislation that will allow speed cameras to be placed in school zones.
They say taking that step will save lives.
A public hearing on the legislation is scheduled for 7 p.m., April 20, at the George Howard Building, 3430 Courthouse Drive, in Ellicott City.
“Some would ask, ‘How many kids have we had killed in school zones so far, chief?’” Police Chief William McMahon said at a press conference last month. “Well, I’m not waiting until the answer is ‘Oh, now we have one, let’s go forward.’ That’s time that’s wasted. That’s way too late.”
Police officials said they could not provide data this week on county projections for speed camera revenue.
However, Ulman said at a budget hearing this week that if the speed camera legislation passed, he would set aside $150,000 from fines to go toward traffic projects, according to the Columbia Flier.
“For those who argue that this is a government money-maker,” Ulman said during the March 8 announcement on the proposed legislation, “every dollar generated by those who speed in school zones goes to public safety.”