Speed camera bill dies in General Assembly session's final hours

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Legislation that would have placed stricter limits on where local governments could put speed cameras and required them to appoint ombudsmen to hear complaints died in the General Assembly Monday night.

The legislation would have strengthened language prohibiting governments from entering into new contracts under which they paid private companies for each ticket issued, but would have allowed current contracts to stand.

A Republican filibuster prevented a Senate vote on the measure as the General Assembly session neared its end. Gov. Martin O'Malley had planned to sign the compromise legislation, which was prompted by a Baltimore Sun investigation that documented erroneous tickets and other problems in Baltimore's program.

"We tried to get everything out, we really did," Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said of the bill's failure.

Republican Sen. E.J. Pipkin of the Eastern Shore led the filibuster, saying he did so because he is opposed to speed cameras. He suggested the reform legislation wasn't strong enough. "In a perfect world, we'd repeal all of them," he said of the cameras. "I didn't like the direction the legislation was going."

"This is extremely disappointing," said Ragina Averella, government affairs manager for AAA Mid-Atlantic and a member of a task force that studied Baltimore's speed camera program. "Many people spent a lot of time on legislation in an effort to address the numerous issues which have been cited regarding speed cameras. Unfortunately, at the end of the day, the bill fell victim to simple politics."

The House of Delegates and Senate had considered proposals sponsored by Del. James Malone and Sen. James Brochin, both Baltimore County Democrats.

The final bill did not contain two key provisions sought by critics of the state's speed camera law. The legislation didn't require detailed time-stamps on the photographs used to generate the tickets. Without them, motorists cannot verify their vehicle was actually speeding when the ticket was issued.

The bill would have limited cameras to areas near schools with children between kindergarten and 12th grade, to areas around schools where children are picked up or dropped off, or on roads where students walk or ride a bicycle to school. Current law permits cameras as far as half a mile from a school.

The bill also would have required local governments with speed cameras to designate an official or employee to investigate and respond to questions or complaints. That person would have had the power to void "erroneous citations" so the motorist would not have to contest the ticket in court.

The measure would have grandfathered any current contracts in which companies are paid by the ticket, as those in Baltimore and Baltimore County do. Critics say such a "bounty system" gives companies an incentive to issue tickets.

In Baltimore County, the vendor, Xerox State & Local Solutions, receives $19 of every $40 ticket paid. The cameras issue tickets to drivers who are accused of traveling more than 11 mph over the speed limit in school or work zones.

O'Malley has said he believed the bounty system was already illegal under the state's 2009 speed camera law. But he said Monday he would be glad to see the prohibition made explicit for future contracts.

"Anything that tightens that up, I would be in favor of," O'Malley said.

Malone, the Baltimore County delegate, said lawmakers were concerned local governments could face lawsuits if they attempted to abolish existing contracts.

The governor emphasized the safety aspects of the continued use of speed cameras in Maryland. Statistics from the governor's office show that fatal crashes on state highways have dropped each year since 2006 until 2011, though they went up again last year. Speed cameras were authorized for statewide use in 2009.

"We've been able on the road to achieve a pretty significant reduction in traffic fatalities," O'Malley said. "I think part of that has to do with better technology and all of us taking it a little slower. We are saving a lot of lives and reducing traffic fatalities."

The Baltimore Sun investigation into speed cameras in the Baltimore area documented a wide range of problems with the city's lucrative speed camera network, including erroneous speed readings from several of its 83 cameras.

Brochin said the final product would have helped protect Maryland drivers from abuses of the camera system.

Ron Ely, chairman of the anti-speed-camera Maryland Drivers Alliance, said the bill didn't go far enough to stop the "bounty system." But he said he believed requiring an ombudsman was a positive reform.

Last week, when asked about the legislation, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said she was concerned primarily with children's safety.

"My focus is on making sure we preserve the parts of the bill that protect the safety of our kids," she said.

luke.broadwater@baltsun.com

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s," she said.

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