There is a lot of buzz about the possibility of speed cameras in Howard County. Here's a bit of the history of what has happened since an announcement last week, as well as some answers to some of the biggest questions.
Last week Police Chief William McMahon and County Executive Ken Ulman announced the police department's intent to in Howard County school zones.
Since then, people have been looking to other jurisdictions, including Baltimore County and Montgomery County to see how the programs have been working, and to blogs such as Maryland Speed Cameras to voice their concerns.
But each jurisdiction handles its program differently, according Capt. John McKissick.
McKissick is the commander of the special operation division, which conducted the year-long speed study that preceded the legislative proposal.
Wednesday night he spoke to the Howard County police Citizens' Advisory Council about the program and addressed some of the most common concerns locals have about speed cameras.
The legislation must first be approved by the County Council before it becomes law. It's expected to be submitted to the council on April 4. A public hearing on the legislation is scheduled for April 20.
Will the county change the area that constitutes a “school zone” so that the cameras can operate in a larger area?
McKissick said he’s been following the chatter in other jurisdictions. “People say, ‘Of course Howard County will be creating new school zones so they can write more tickets.’ That’s just not true.”
School zones are created either by the State Highway Authority or Howard County but, per state law, they must be within a half-mile radius of a school.
“We could be disingenuous and we could get out our compass and make out a half-mile radius around a school,” McKissick said, “and there would be all kinds of roadways that we could include—some higher-speed roadways that have very large traffic volumes. But that’s not what the law was enacted to do.”
There will, however, be some applications beyond the school zone, he said, in the form of additional signage, warning drivers that their speeds are being monitored.
“I know no one would believe this,” McKissick said, “but we really want people to slow down. We want to save lives and we’re not going to make $100 million doing this program. We’re trying to be as upfront as we could possibly be. We’re going to be in existing school zones. That’s where we’re going to be.”
What about my privacy?
“I don’t know that you have an expectation of privacy driving down the road in your car with windows,” McKissick said.
He presented a red light citation to show what a speeding vehicle would look like. The picture displayed a close-up of a car's rear license plate and two shots of the vehicle—from the rear—that show relative motion alongside a stationary object.
“I understand that there are people who, for many reasons, think that automated enforcement is a bad thing,” he said, “whether you think it’s Orwellian, or 1984… that somehow that this is going to invade your personal privacy. It’s no more invasive,” he argued, “than if I stopped you to write a citation. It’s probably less invasive.
“People worry that they’re on camera,” he went on. “Well, when you walk into the Columbia Mall you are on probably the most robust video system that exists anywhere in Howard County and every step you take is on video tape."
“I know we will not convince everyone,” added Chief William McMahon. “There are some people who are philosophically opposed to this, I understand that. We’re being as transparent as we can.”
Will it be a contractor or a police officer who decides if I get a ticket?
The department will hire a staff of four technicians to operate the mobile speed cameras—two operators per vehicle per shift. There will be two shifts. The operators will be trained by police and certified as radar technicians. The department will also hire a program administrator, a staff person and a technical support person.
Unlike some jurisdictions, where an outside vendor handles the entire operation, police employees will run the Howard County program, and a sworn police officer will give the final approval on all citations.
Still, incidents such as Baltimore City red light citations that bore the signature of a dead police officer have people worried. McKissick pointed to the Howard County red light vendor to calm people’s fears.
“Our red light vendor is very responsible–they won’t send us a citation that doesn’t look right," he said. "If it’s marginal, they won’t send it to us because they know we won’t send out a citation.”
That’s the standard that McKissick said the speed camera program will live up to.
What will happen with all of the money made from citations?
“We’re not going to make $100 million with this program," McKissick said. “We think we’re going to have fines over cost,” he added, meaning a surplus once the equipment and personnel are paid for. “But I don’t think we’ll have $100 million.”
If there is a substantial surplus, he and County Executive Ken Ulman have both confirmed it will be earmarked for traffic safety and pedestrian programs. So, if two years from now there’s a nice chunk of change, McKissick said there are “tons of things we can do.” In particular, he mentioned bringing traffic signals into compliance.
Is the program going to expand?
The police department is not limited to two cameras, nor to using them only in school zones. The state legislation also allows for their use in work zones, which is something McKissick said the department “would look at.” He added that there are not many of these work zones. “We’re really concentrating on school zones.”