Use of two in school zones may just be a start, said opponents at last night's public hearing on the issue.
“But the bill doesn’t say that there’s any limitation. We’ll have 20, then we’ll have 50, then we’ll have 100,” Ellicott City resident Joel Rosenberg testified. “Then they’ll be on my lawn, they’ll be over in the mall, they’re going to be in my bedroom. That’s the way it’s gonna go.”
The idea of speed cameras on the nightstand drew laughs, but also applause from the vocal minority of attendees who opposed legislation that would allow the use of mobile speed cameras in Howard County school and work zones.
Anticipating a long hearing, Council President Calvin Ball asked those in favor of the legislation to stand; about 40 rose, including a half-dozen uniformed police officers. When Ball asked those against the legislation to stand, about 17 people came to their feet.
Also testifying in favor of the legislation was a crossing guard and members of the Howard County Police Chief’s Citizens Advisory Council.
Howard County Police Chief William McMahon testified that he knew he wasn’t going to change the minds of everyone who opposed the legislation, but he said once all of the information was made available to the public, “This is going to be a difficult bill not to support.”
He followed up with statistics about the year-long study that police conducted in school zones, which showed 66 percent of drivers to be speeding, and a pledge that the department would conduct this new speed enforcement “on roadways that have relevance to school traffic.” Not, ostensibly, in people’s bedrooms.
But statistics and pledges from a department head took a back seat to emotional testimony in favor of the cameras.
Claire Meitl began to cry as soon as she started recounting the first day of Centennial High School softball season in 1991. Her Daughter, Jodi, and two friends drove to school that morning.
Meitl received a call from the school shortly after her daughter left; there had been a car crash.
“When I arrived at the scene,” she said, “I saw a demolished car and a bloodstained passenger seat. I turned around as the Shock Trauma helicopter lifted off Centennial’s field. And then I fainted.”
Jodi’s friend Andrea Barlow was killed in the accident. Jodi sustained serious injuries, including a fractured skull, shattered nose and a fractured pelvis.
“She is not the child we had before the accident.”
Meitl said a truck loaded with construction materials struck the vehicle. The truck was going faster than 45 mph in a school zone, according to the citation the driver received. He did not have to pay the fine, Meitl said, because no one showed up in court to prove that the flashing school zone lights were operational.
“My husband and I … strongly believe that [speed cameras] will be an effective deterrent to speeding, because,” she said, “as we know firsthand, flashing school lights are definitely not enough.”
Jodi Meitl’s father, John, read testimony that Jodi had submitted. She said she was not out partying or drinking, but that her friend misjudged the pace of a speeding vehicle.
“Today I turn 37,” the testimony read, “and I can tell you that these memories are as vivid today as they were 20 years ago. Now, though, my thoughts are more about protecting my daughter, who … depends on me to safely cross the very same street that has caused me nightmares.”
Ron Ely, founder of StopBigBrother.org spoke emotionally as well, insisting that speed camera programs have not been implemented as promised in neighboring jurisdictions. He noted several cases in Baltimore, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties where mistakes have led to tickets being issued unfairly, school zones have been expanded, and speed limits lowered.
“Revenue comes at the expense of the integrity of our justice systems,” he said
Other opponents of the program repeated such ideological arguments.
Julian Levy has three children who sometimes walk to school. But, he said, at the heart of the issue and his opposition to the legislation was that it is “counter to the American judicial heritage. You’re guilty until you can prove yourself innocent.”
The idea that a speed camera program was about raising revenue, not safety, was also repeated several times. To that end, a few speakers noted the low cost of the citations, $40.
“The amount is so small that people aren’t going to fight it and it’s going to help you guys raise revenue,” Chris Oxenham said.
“If you want to do something about public safety, get real.” He suggested increasing drunken and reckless driving fines and assigning community service to violators instead of a fine—no revenue, same speed enforcement.
The county executive's proposed FY12 budget includes about $1.23 million for the new program that incorporates salary for six related employees: a supervisor, an administrative support person and four technicians to staff two mobile vans.
McMahon said that it would take about 8 to 10 officers to run a similar program, citing the court costs of more people contesting the more expensive citations, training required and pulling officers from other duties.
A speed camera program, he said, would be “significantly cheaper, for lack of a better word, than sworn officers.”
The legislation would provide for vans equipped with speed cameras that would issue $40 citations for vehicles speeding 12 miles per hour or faster over the speed limit. The citation would be reviewed by a certified technician, and then sent to a police officer for approval before being mailed to the car’s owner.
If the legislation passes, the police department would initially buy two vans equipped with speed cameras. The legislation as written does not specify a limit as to how many cameras the department could operate in the future.
Chief McMahon said the cameras would be used in school zones between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m. , and the dates and locations that they would be used at would be available from the police ahead of time.
Two school board members—testifying as individuals—spoke on different sides of the issue, though both, as with most who testified, agreed that speeding was a problem in the county.
Frank Aquino testified in favor, saying he was “impressed but not surprised” at the police data showing how many drivers sped in school zones. But he noted that in work zones where he had seen speed cameras involved, over time, “brake lights became a common sight.”
Brian Meshkin added the county needed a “community-based solution.” He went on to say, “I have a problem with any elected official, as someone who is one now, proposing a solution, being able to check the box, suggesting that they’re actually solving a problem when they’re not.”
Meshkin cited methodology concerns about the police-conducted traffic study, which he had not read thoroughly, and offered peer-reviewed traffic analyses for the council to read.
Councilmember Courtney Watson (D, Ellicott City), suggested Meshkin meet with Chief McMahon. “I just think it’s a good practice to speak to our department heads.”
If there was one point on which nearly all speakers agreed, it was summed up by the testimony of Eric Hankleroad, an elementary school student from Savage who testified in his Boy Scout uniform.
After his testimony, he waved his hand back and forth, signaling speedy cars driving along Savage Gilford Road when he walks home from school.
During his testimony, he said he thought speed cameras would be a good idea.
“Many people drive fast while I’m walking home.”