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Rules of the road

When I asked readers whether there are subjects they would like to see addressed here, one expressed interest in my “takes on life in and around Baltimore City,” For that reader I want to explain my satisfaction in the increasing number of speed cameras and red-light cameras in the city.

In the main, Baltimore drivers are like American drivers everywhere. They see use of the turn signal as a sign of weakness. Those who drive SUVs imagine that the purchase of a large, expensive, vulgar piece of machinery grants an exemption from Newton’s laws of motion. No one understands the meaning of signs advising YIELD—perhaps too many letters?

But it is distinctive here that one of the favorite local pastimes is driving through red lights and stop signs. That is why the informal rules of the road here, as opposed to those fussy statutes that no one pays much mind to, require you to pause one beat, two beats, three beats, after the light turns green before proceeding.

I observed the Baltimore Pause one day at the intersection of Harford Road and Hamilton Avenue and still was nearly broadsided by a woman sailing through the intersection. (She was gabbing on a cellphone at the time. The prohibition against talking on a cellphone while operating an automobile is another of those fussy little statutes.)

So I welcomed the arrival of the red-light cameras, which have had some effect in curtailing the practice.

Then came the speed cameras, which have produced howls of outrage. A couple of my colleagues, The Sun’s esteemed local columnist Dan Rodricks and the estimable business columnist Jay Hancock, have railed against speed cameras in print, suggesting that they are an infringement on personal liberty and a low scheme to fill municipal coffers.

I demur. I drive to and from work on stretches of Perring Parkway and Hillen Road that some drivers apparently mistake for the Bonneville salt flats. I once turned the corner at Hillen Road and 31st Street to see an SUV lying upside down in the median—and wondered just how fast one has to be traveling to accomplish that.

The speed cameras are set so that you don’t get nicked until you exceed twelve miles in excess of the posted limit. That’s thirty-five on the broader streets, twenty-five on neighborhood streets and the more crowded areas. So I figure if your need is so urgent to be doing fifty or fifty-five miles an hour on a city street, you ought to be in an ambulance, not an automobile.*

As to the money, I have suggested before, and repeat here, that drivers who get dinged for exceeding the speed limit might just think about the fine as a toll. People who want to get somewhere faster pay for the privilege on the Dulles Toll Road and the Intercounty Connector. If you want to drive fast in Baltimore, go ahead. And pony up.


*I, too, have been nicked. Preoccupied, I exceeded the limit and got caught by a speed camera near a school and paid the forty-dollar-fine, taking it as a reminder of the unwisdom of driving while distracted.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:39 AM | | Comments (3)


That flipped SUV might not have been travelling fast - a BMW X5 was flipped on its roof at an intersection near my place last week while obeying all traffic rules. The small 5-door hatch that ran straight into the side of it, however, should have been motionless at the time.

Many people complain about "revenue raising" speed cameras, but I suggest they trick the government out of that revenue by obeying the speed limit.

I'm all for red-light cameras. Running a red is an unambiguous danger and a flagrant flouting of the law, and that law is enforced as such. Speed limits, on the other hand, are arbitrary and fuzzy. But for whatever reason, we've arrived at a system where they are deliberately set too low with the knowledge that people will exceed them, and -- as with that 12-mph leeway -- enforced that way.

In D.C., the leeway is less, and there are freeways where the speed limit is 40 mph. Freeways! No cop would go 40 on a freeway, and no cop would ticket anybody for doing 41. I think the leeway is 10. OK: No cop would go a slow as 50 on a freeway, and no cop would ticket anybody for going 51. But there's the camera doing just that.

Ideally, we'd have reasonable speed limits and they'd be enforced to the letter. We'd all know where we stood. For better or worse, however, we instead have a system that uses human discretion on the part of both drivers and law enforcers. Cameras have no such discretion. To mail me a ticket for doing 51 mph on a freeway is to change the rules in the middle of the game.

So I should just slow down to 49 or 39 and shut up? OK, then how does that principle work if the make it 30, or 20, or 3? If the cameras were being used to catch people doing 45 on residential streets, that would be great. It would be a public-safety move. As a bicycle commuter, I would be especially happy. The cameras' current placement, at lest in Washington, suggests very strongly that it's all about raising money. And laziness. The cops could mint money if they decided to ticket people who stop their cars in the middle of the street (the euphemistically christened "double parkers").

Here's the latest red-light camera scoop from out her in our City of Angels.

On an earlier firm recommendation by the L.A. Police Commission our City Council voted back on July 31st of last year to terminate the (Gotcha!) red-light camera program, shutting down some 32 cameras located at various high-trafficked surface-street intersections throughout our fair city.

(Curiously, the Police Commission's ruling in this matter was kind of counterintuitive, in that most rank-and-file LAPD officers, and their beat superiors were firmly against shelving the red-light camera program, arguing that they had solid long-term statistical proof that the red-light cameras were effective in majorly reducing intersection collisions (injuries and fatalities) where these cameras operated. Many detractors argued that those stats had been intentionally fudged, and that the cameras weren't marked effective in curbing the frequency of accidents.)

Turns out that a huge portion of tickets issued over the seven year duration of operations of the red-light camera program here in L.A. was assessed for the offending driver executing one of those infamous California 'rolling-right-turns-on-a-red-light' (not coming to a full stop), and NOT necessarily for trying to outrace a traffic light having just turned red-----a much more egregious vehicular offense, in my view.

Yet another knock against the benefits of the red-light camera system was the fact that about 40% of the issued $400.00+ offender fines were never actually paid. In other words, it became a kind of de facto 'voluntary'-pay scenario; clearly, over the long-haul of enforcing the program, a losing proposition. (Also, the camera system was apparently run by a faceless out-of-State agency, so only a percentage of the net revenues from the fines that accrued actually reached the city coffers.)

When 'offenders' who dutifully, yet begrudgingly, paid those exorbitant fines learned of this alarming 'non-payer' data, it naturally didn't sit well w/ them. In essence, the honest folks were being penalized for merely complying w/ the law, while the 'non-payers' were all making out like bandits. (So much for guilty consciences.)

Interestingly, a number of our California State Parks here in So Cal have installed automatic-shutter-release cameras at various STOP sign(ed) intersections. In fact, a few years ago I received a citation for apparently not coming to a full-stop at Franklin Canyon State Park up on the Mulholland crest, between Beverly Hills and Encino Hills. The fine was $100.00, and had to be mailed to some phantom collecting agency in Ohio. (An absentee enforcer, no less.)

As I recall, here the camera would take a photo of your license plate, and not a more wide-angle, full-face, frontal mug shot behind the steering wheel a la the red-light camera image. Admittedly, there are posted signs forewarning the park motorist that a camera is operating at the upcoming STOP sign. So technically the driver really has no excuse for violating the STOP sign rule. (Some of these warning signs are partially concealed by park tree, or brush foliage, however. But still, no excuses.)

I imagine the State Parks folks, who are sorely hurting for revenues these days, figure they'd take full advantage of the ubiquitous, and popular 'California rolling-stop' manoeuvre, where the driver feigns a complete stop, but actually only slows down on approaching the intersection, and then equally as slowly accelerates thru, into the intersection, and beyond. (They'll get you every time on THAT one.)

Some slightly paranoid anti-red-light/ anti-speed-monitoring camera folks argue that these intrusive law enforcement technologies are symptomatic of an increasing "Big Brother' climate encroaching on our free, Western society. I can see their point, but perhaps it may be a tad extreme.

Although I've seen fairly recent news reports that in London, England, the number of public surveillance cameras in employ by city law-enforcement has increased over tenfold in recent years; likely precipitated, to a degree, by those horrific terrorist bombings in the London Underground back in July of 2005.

Sir Picky, old lad, perhaps you might be able to give us a more firsthand take on this increase in on-street surveillance in London town, of late. Do some Londoners feel personally threatened, or conversely, more safe, in knowing that law-enforcement is on-watch 24/7?

For me, there appears to be a fine line between the notions of invasion of privacy versus the imperative of public safety here; and public safety seems to be winning out in the end. (Same kind of conundrum w/ the airport security full-body X-ray scanning. Where does one draw the line?)

Picky, just be discreet about nose and seat picking, and you Londoners should be fine, and dandy. HA!


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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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