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December 14, 2011

Speed cameras are fine -- but only up to a point!

I am a traffic conservative. Not counting the speed camera citation I got a few weeks ago, I have received one speeding ticket in the last 30 years. I am the guy obeying the speed limit in my neighborhood while cars pile up behind me tailgating. I'm the person admonishing my wife and kids for having lead feet.

However I can't say, as some readers seem to be prepared to do, that ever-proliferating speed cameras used under almost any conditions are a great thing. The feedback from yesterday's column was pretty evenly divided between readers with their own horror stories (check out the guy who got a school-zone speed-camera ticket in Catonsville the day after Thanksgiving, when schools were closed), who were sympathetic to Jim Hunter, whom I quoted, and those who believe speed cameras increase safety and are a force for good. I agree that ticketing speed violators is a good idea. I don't agree that speed cameras should be allowed just about anywhere, with little warning to drivers.

Hunter's main gripes are that the camera that nailed him wasn't well marked and it didn't seem to be in a genuine construction zone. Those points seemed to have been lost on some readers. Here's a sample of my email feedback on Monday:

It really grieves me that a Connecticut businessman was booked by a speed camera going 67 in a 55-mph zone and given a $40 fine. And that you yourself were snapped going 43 in a 30-mph school zone.

What is this? No one can read anymore? You exceed posted speed limits by 21 and 13 miles per hour and bellyache that you got a ticket? And that it’s the fault of the State of Maryland that needs to fill its coffers with money from innocent drivers?

IMHO (In my humble opinion, for those who don’t use email shorthand), your only reaction should be gratitude that Maryland allows a generous 11 miles over the limit leeway before issuing tickets and that you didn’t hit or kill someone.

Give us a break. Speed cameras do their job of getting “I’m above the law” drivers to slow down and avoid accidents. IMHO, there should be one at every corner.

And:

I received my third speed camera ticket in the last three weeks last night for going 48 mph on a 35 mph stretch of Northern Parkway. The other two were for the same stretch of road next to the State Office Building on Preston Street where it is a 25 mph street on Howard. I have heard they give you a break for up to 12 mph over the speed limit, and I believe each and every one of my tickets were for 13 mph over. It is a big drain on my non existent cash flow, where I live from paycheck to paycheck and have to drive about 25 miles each way to my job. Thanks, Jay. It was very gratifying to know I am not the only one who is suffering and I was shocked to realize it is only Maryland that is doing this on the East Coast.

And:

GREAT piece, Mr, Hancock. Here is the comment I added.

The only reason that Maryland CAN be the notorious speed trap state and red light camera trap state is that the traffic safety engineering parameters are deliberately and maliciously done improperly to reduce safety and facilitate more ticket camera revenue.
If all main roads were posted with the speed limits that produce the greatest safety, the 85th percentile speed of free flowing traffic under good conditions, speed cameras could not issue enough citations to even pay their own costs of operation.
If all traffic lights had yellow intervals long enough for the ACTUAL 85th percentile speeds of approaching traffic to produce the minimum number of violations and the greatest safety, they could not issue enough citations to even pay their own basic costs of operation.
Speed and red light cameras are just cynical means to make money with improper engineering and unethical traffic management policies.

And:

The portrayal of Mr. Hunter’s reaction, criticism and subsequent behavior appears self-centered and “possibly” hypocritical to his own employee business behavior expectations. Regardless whether the speed zone was posted as 55 and or 65, his driving behavior and lack of attention caused him to exceed the max limits on that highway. In his business, I’m sure, if one of his employees behaved out side the parameters of company work rules, there would be a supervisory mention or verbal warning up to written reprimand/termination. I also wonder if he communicates as well as he expects MD by follow-up employee relations best practices to once a year re-briefed employees and have

them acknowledgement initial that the were briefed on work rule behavior expectations? I’m sure there “could be” a possibility where an employee could of been observed behaving out side the work rules on a security camera and management now aware of unacceptable behavior would them be expected to address the situation.

And:

I understand how out-of-state drivers feel when they get a speeding ticket in Maryland. I once developed a serious grudge against Delaware for the same reason. It's natural to feel angry at those who punish us.

That doesn't mean the punishment is not merited, however. The man described in your column deserves more ridicule than support. His claim that he never goes more than five miles per hour above the speed limit is very hard to believe, as it would be a big coincidence if the one time he happened to break that practice was right in front of a speed camera. His contention that the speed limit wasn't well marked is equally implausible considering that this was on an interstate highway. He broke the law; it's a reasonable law; the state is justified in enforcing it strictly; in other words, he should take his punishment like a man and be happy he got off with a small fine and no conviction.

And:

Love the hypocrisy by Mr. Hunter in your column today. If you never go more than 5 miles per hour over the speed limit how did you get a ticket for doing 67 in a 55 mph zone? What was even more precious was his comment "The picture clearly shows no barricades" in the area where he was fined. "It looks like an open road. I don't doubt I was speeding (here we must remember he never goes more then 5 mph over the speed limit), but it wasn't clearly marked". Here Mr. Hunter forgot to add that since it looked like an open road and wasn't clearly marked (I travel that section on 95 every day and it is definitely clearly marked) then it is okay for him to drive at any speed he wishes, but of course not more then 5 mph over the speed limit. I don't think you were trying to make him look like a fool, but you sure did. IT ALL COMES DOWN TO ONE SIMPLE THING. IF YOU DON'T WANT A TICKET, DON'T SPEED.

And:

Mr. Hancock, James F. Hunter should be glad he didn’t get his pockets picked by our “Taxation Without Representation” neighbors to the south. In October 2010, I got a $300 speed photo ticket for going 53 mph on the 6 lane DC295 freeway. It was supposedly a work zone posted at 35 mph although neither my memory nor the photo shows workers, equipment or construction zone signs. I have been a big fan of traffic light cameras and I believe speed cameras can be a good thing to improve safety but my only experience indicates just a greedy way to produce revenue. Similar to Mr. Hunter, I too have boycotted DC for over a year.

And:

I had to respond to your article in today's paper about speed traps. Last year my son was visiting from Ohio, and we went to Lorraine cemetery in Woodlawn. On our return to Catonsville passing by Woodlawn high school he received in his mail a ticket for speeding in a school zone during school hours. But here is the catch. It was the day after thanksgiving and the schools were closed. The speed was not excessive as in addition to me, he had his young son in the car.

And:

You're probably being besieged with speeding ticket stories so I'll spare you mine ... from the Eastern Shore. But one of the "proof is in the pudding" angles I see regarding speeding tickets is that the Maryland Legislature never treats it as found money but rather it's budgeted money!

Were it "found money" there'd be this "oh wow" moment sometime in the first quarter of every fiscal year when they realize that they have all of this unexpected revenue on hand.

But no, I don't believe it works that way. Speeding tickets are in fact a budgeted revenue item and they're lying through their teeth every time they tell you [us] that radar/speed cameras are anything but.

Good column!

And:

Good article on the speed traps in MD; good insight on the topic and I’m glad you put it out there because it appears this is being taken far beyond what was originally expected from citizens. Remember the famous bogus parking tickets in Baltimore a few years back? I’m not into conspiracy theories but after seeing what’s going on with the cameras I wouldn’t be surprised if there wasn’t something going with those tickets. I know the Sun did a number of articles on the parking tickets; but I wonder if that question ever got answered??

And:

Excellent article about Maryland's reproducing-like-rabbits speed cameras. I received a dubious citation in May 2010 for going 65 in the EB work zone on 695 near Charles St. It was 6:30 a.m. on a Sunday and there wasn't a worker in sight - save for the gentleman operating the stationary vehicle that snaps photos of drivers exceeding the temporary, reduced speed limit. That got me thinking: if his primary purpose was to nab motorists driving at speeds that put highway workers at risk, then his only reason for being there - alone - was that he was ... there. In other words, the state sent out a guy to enforce highway work zone speeds to ensure his own safety. Talk about a "make work" job.

And:

Read your column this morning dealing with the gross number of "speed cameras" being used to pad the local income. Last Christmas Eve, on my way home from the store, I managed to get a ticket for excessive speed by one of those cameras, over 30 mph in a school zone. This was on Putty Hill Ave. just east of old Harford Road. The school was closed for the holidays and I was the only car on the road at that time. But that stealthy camera was still on duty, and it cost me $40 bucks to find that out. It would appear that if the camera was only for traffic control it would be turned off when it is not needed. But they need the money I guess.

And:

Hi Jay, enjoyed your article Welcome to Maryland the 'Speed Trap State'. I find it rare and rather refreshing to read an article in the Sun actually critical of the O'Malley administration. I have lived in Maryland for 22 years and I question if I can afford to live here many years longer. I love living here but it seems I have to put up with more and more bullshit from the state on the way they tax and seek other sources of revenue. The speed camera issue reeks of unfairness, deception, and restriction of driver's rights. The letter you quoted from Mr. Hunter was very descriptive in calling speed cameras, picking my pocket. That is exactly how I feel. Great job!
Posted by Jay Hancock at 6:00 AM | | Comments (3)
        

Comments

"I am the guy obeying the speed limit in my neighborhood while cars pile up behind me tailgating. I'm the person admonishing my wife and kids for having lead feet"

You do realize that arrogantly impeding traffic like this is MORE dangerous than going with the flow of traffic, right? The safest speed is the 85th percentil speed. The situation you describe indicates that the speed limits are not set correctly and that the road needs an ENGINEERING solution, not an enforcement solution. Any good traffic engineer knows that you can't slow down traffic by reducing speed limits, and conversely you can't speed up traffic by increasing limits. That's just how people are, and you need an engineering approach to achieve speeds that are needed. Clearly though, the city is only interested in CASHING IN.

Hi Radar: On highways where cars go fast, you're right about going with the flow. On residential streets like mine with no sidewalks where kids and dogs roam, you're wrong. Cheers, JH

I received a ticket for speeding on 695 at the 83 interchange. The construction is now gone. The speed cameras are still there at the bottom of the hill after you speed up from a little known phenomenon, inertia & gravity.

Several respondents mention the "85th percentile" as the safest speed. I would guess this mostly reflects the fact that driving at a speed significantly different from other cars increases both the probability and severity of collisions. Some then jump to the conclusion that we should let drivers set the speed limit, apparently with the rationale that "they're going to do it anyway."
I see a problem with this conclusion: there are objective reasons for setting speed limits lower than drivers might like, which are known to traffic engineers but not to drivers, for example stopping distances, which drivers commonly under misjudge. I take the fact that engineers DO set speed limits as evidence for this view (full disclosure: I do not subscribe to the Left Wing Conspiracy Theory).
It was also pointed out that speed limits don't have much effect on (some) driver's behavior, which seems indisputable. But what about ENFORCEMENT of speed limits! Won't even the densest speeder eventual tire of stiff fines or loss of license?
And I think that the people who tend to drive up speeds also tend to exercise bad judgement; I'd prefer they not set our laws.
Mr Hunter's rant left a bad taste in my mouth (which a Ritas never has). My reading of his views: "I'm an important guy and if you mess mess with me I know how to throw my weight around and make you sorry. I might just pick up my marbles and go home. So change your laws to suit me or else." I wonder how he would like it if I said "Rita's is a company that allows their representatives to meddle in Maryland's affairs. Let's teach them a lesson and boycott their product." Perhaps Rita's would like to comment on whether Mr Hunter speaks for them.
The speed camera issue may well require changes. But I want these to come about through Maryland's political process, not the meddling of carpet baggers.

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About Jay Hancock
Jay Hancock has been a financial columnist for The Baltimore Sun since 2001. He has also been The Baltimore Sun's diplomatic correspondent in Washington and its chief economics writer. Before moving to Baltimore in 1994 he worked for The Virginian-Pilot of Norfolk and The Daily Press of Newport News.

His columns appear Tuesdays and Sundays.
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