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After 14 years, traffic camera debate endures

ANNAPOLIS — In the 14 years since the Maryland legislature approved red light cameras, about 200 of the ticket-issuing machines have been installed in the state, according to a database compiled by AAA Mid-Atlantic.

That doesn’t include speed cameras, which are numerous in Maryland, but for which there is no comprehensive database.

“[The cameras] are effective because they scare people,” said Amanda Clark, 29, who said she has received four red light camera tickets and a speed camera ticket within the last five years. “People don’t want to get hit with a [$40] ticket every day. But sometimes they’re placed in the wrong places, like where people don’t know the speed limit or if the speed limit changes drastically. But I think they should be in all school zones.”

Even after 14 years and hundreds of installed cameras, the debate over automated traffic enforcement continues.

Red light and speed camera supporters argue that they decrease accidents and save lives. Opponents say the cameras operate in questionable legal territory and provide a warped incentive to the private companies that maintain them.

“Cameras reduce crashes. Cameras save lives,” said Anne Fleming, senior vice president of communications for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an independent, nonprofit organization that conducts traffic research and aims to reduce traffic accidents and fatalities.

According to AAA Mid-Atlantic, a work-zone speed camera located on the Capital Beltway has issued 21,000 tickets in the last three months. Lon Anderson, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said that the cameras in work zones help discourage speeding and make the roads safer for workers and drivers.

However, Anderson also said that some speed cameras in communities are being used more as a revenue generator rather than a tool for safety.

Grassroots organizations have sprung up in Maryland and across the nation in protest of speed and red light cameras.

“I don’t think that the testimony of a machine that is run by a company that makes money off the number of tickets issued should be sufficient to find me guilty beyond a reasonable doubt,” said Ron Ely, founder of, a website that opposes automated traffic enforcement. “I am entitled to face my accuser, a human accuser.”

His website and several others compile locations of speed and red light cameras.

For others, the cameras raise questions about fairness.

“The world is a complicated place. For every absolute rule that you set up there will always be circumstances that arise where an exception needs to be made,” said Jay Stanley, a privacy and technology expert with the American Civil Liberties Union.

Police officers can use their judgment to decide whether to issue a ticket, whereas cameras issue tickets indiscriminately.

“You don’t want to mix up justice and profit,” Stanley said.

But Fleming said the revenue generated from tickets is ultimately a moot point.

“From a safety standpoint, the purpose of cameras is to convince people to obey the law, because if they don’t they might get a ticket. Therefore the goal is for no tickets at all,” Fleming said. “It should be anything but a ticket program, it’s a deterrent program.”

Studies have differed over the effectiveness of cameras in preventing accidents. For example, the Federal Highway Administration released a study on the effectiveness of red light cameras at preventing accidents in April 2005. The report studied 132 intersections with red light cameras in seven locations around the nation, including Baltimore, Howard County and Montgomery County. The report found that there was a 25 percent decrease in total right-angle crashes, but a 15 percent increase in total rear-end crashes.

In Maryland, a red light camera ticket carries a $100 maximum fine with no points, and a speed camera carries a $40 maximum fine with no points.

Many choose to simply pay the fine rather than go through the trouble and expense of going to court, even if they have mixed feelings about the cameras. Clark said the speed camera that caught her was mounted just after an intersection where the speed limit drops drastically after the intersection.

But she didn’t contest it and paid the fine.

“No I didn’t, it’s kind of hard to do that,” she said.