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Red light camera pros and cons debated

Leonardtown, MD -- Are red light cameras coming to some intersections in St. Mary’s County? No decision was made but the pros and cons were debated at the Jan. 5 county commissioners meeting during a presentation by the sheriff’s office on safety issues at several major intersections. At the end of the discussion, Sheriff Tim Cameron [R] told the commissioners “a lot of due diligence” is required before a decision can be made,

Arguments regarding red light cameras often revolve around public safety versus charges they are just a revenue generating attempt. But Cameron was clear: “To me it’s not about the money, it’s about public safety. How do you change public behavior?”

The meeting featured a Power Point presentation by Cpl. Brian Connelly of the Traffic Safety Unit of the Special Operations Division. The presentation reported 3,354 crashes in 2014 in the county

While total crashes declined by 2.2 percent from the previous year as did hit and run property damage (8.3 percent decline) and personal injury collisions (11.3 percent decline), fatal collisions increased by 16.7 percent and personal damage and hit and run personal injury accidents increased as well.

According to the statistics assembled, the highest frequency of crashes were reported between 3 and 6 p.m. and along Route 235 from Route 4 to Route 246. The conclusion is that commuter work traffic is the culprit.

Five possible locations for red light cameras have been identified:
• Three Notch Road (Route 5) at New Market Turner Road (Route 6)
• Route 235 at Millstone Road
• Route 235 at Maple Road
• Route 235 at Old Rolling Road/Shady Mile Drive
• Route 235 at Pegg Road.

The process of establishing a red light camera program is lengthy and begins with approval by the Maryland State Highway Administration of the intersections requested. The state might determine that other traffic safety options are called for before the last resort of the red light cameras.

Once the intersections are selected then a vendor would have to be chosen to run the system. The vendor who runs the school bus camera program for the school system also runs red light camera programs and data was presented from them as an example.

In conjunction with installing the cameras, decisions have to be made about tweaking the sequencing of the amber and red lights at each intersection. Also a decision would have to be made about what point in the intersection would trigger a violation.

The red light camera images include location, date/time, lane, image ID, amber light time and red light time. Once the vendor determines a violation, a notice is sent to the state which reviews the information and then sends it back to the vendor for a second review before forwarding the violation to the sheriff’s office which would make a final review before issuing the citation.

A red light violation would be a civil infraction subject to a $75 fine but no points would be assessed against the driver. The notice is sent to the registered owner of the vehicle and that owner could appeal the violation and present proof that they actually were not driving. If there is a dispute between parties as to who is driving, the court would have to make a ruling.

Commissioner Mike Hewitt [R - 2nd District] led a barrage of questions about the potential program. He said, “The key is deterrence,” but questioned the deterrence value of the cameras once people know they are installed. Hewitt said a greater deterrence would be having officers at each of the intersections, and wondered why that wasn’t happening.

“Route 235 is unsafe for officers to do enforcement,” Connelly argued. He said there weren’t safe places for officers to observe traffic and once they stopped a vehicle for running a red light then one of the lanes of traffic becomes blocked or if the driver pulls into a business then that parking lot becomes impacted.

During his presentation Sheriff Cameron emphasized Connelly’s remarks. He said he doesn’t feel safe when making stops along that route. But he insisted that his department wasn’t giving up on enforcement there because of the safety issues.  He added that the peak times for traffic on Route 235 are also peak times for other law enforcement issues, spreading his patrols thin.

Regarding the money issue, Connelly said that the experience of other jurisdictions is that the programs run in the red during the startup phase and then it starts paying for itself. But Commissioner John O’Connor [R - 3rd District}, who has spoken out against red light cameras, said if the program moves forward he would like it to be revenue neutral.

Commissioner Tom Jarboe [R - District 1], who said he travels around the state a lot including jurisdictions such as Howard and Charles that have red light cameras, stated their existence makes him more cognizant. But he added, “Route 235 Is the most dangerous place I drive.”

O’Connor said from a revenue generating standpoint, the most money is made from violating not stopping on red before making a right turn. “Straight through red light is a dog,” he said.

Connelly said it would take about 30 citations per red light camera for each one to start paying for itself

Commissioner Todd Morgan [R - 4th District] , whose wife was in a serious auto accident at a Route 235 intersection and subsequently succumbed to her injuries, said “I don’t think money is an issue. It is more about public safety.”

Since the decision to proceed with red light cameras would include fiscal considerations, presumably the commissioners will address it during their upcoming budget deliberations.

Contact Dick Myers at dick.myers@thebaynet.com

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