Ulman faces undecided council on speed cameras

The Ulman administration’s speed camera proposal will face tough questions from the Howard County Council, but officials are working to head off objections despite angry complaints from critics.

County Executive Ken Ulman said he took more than a year for police to survey vehicle speeds around 100 public and private schools throughout the county before making up his mind to propose legislation. Now, he’s stressing precautions meant to assure council members that the cameras will be used carefully and in a limited way.

“We spent a lot of time, deliberately,” Ulman said at a news conference announcing the proposal at Ilchester Elementary School in Ellicott City.

Ulman has not locked up enough support on the County Council to pass it yet, as several members say they’re undecided or opposed.

Councilwoman Jen Terrasa, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, said she favors the goal of safety for students, but has philosophical doubts about the cameras. “I have my concerns about it,” she said, including privacy and civil liberty issues, she said, though she has “an open mind.” Council Chairman Calvin Ball, an east Columbia Democrat, was also noncommittal and Fulton Republican Greg Fox is no speed camera fan.

Only Mary Kay Sigaty, a west Columbia Democrat, is an unabashed speed camera supporter, noting that she testified in favor of the cameras before the General Assembly. She said her father lives in Arizona, where cameras are used and “they caused a sea change with many people” who now automatically slow down near schools.

Councilwoman Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat who appeared with Ulman at his speed camera news conference, stopped short of a public commitment to vote for it. Before the event at Ilchester Elementary School in her district, she said “the No. 1 complaint my office receives is speeding,” and that Ilchester Road is the “poster child” for the problem.

At the news conference, Watson said “we need to really look at ways to keep our children safe,” adding that she and other council members would be “pleased ” to review the camera bill with the police once it is submitted. Later she said “we have a problem here,” but didn’t want to prejudge the legislation. “We have to give the chief the opportunity to speak to us,” Watson added.

County Police Chief William J. McMahon said there are areas near some county schools where he believes cameras will be a real help, and he uses data from speed surveys taken near the 100 public and private schools in the county to back his claims.

“We didn’t want to jump into this fast just because the state said we could,” he said, adding that he’s tried posting officers on Ilchester Road, but there are too many speeders in too many places for patrol officers to be a real deterrent. “This is a tool that can help save lives.”

The bill to be introduced to the County Council in April won’t limit the number of cameras in use, though if it is approved, McMahon said he intends to start with just two mounted in mobile vans. To give police complete control and prevent criticism, McMahon said the vehicles and cameras would be bought by the county and the technicians operating them would be county employees.

All of the tickets the law allows would be signed by a county police officer. Mobility would allow the cameras more flexibility and unpredictability, though Ulman said the locations would be clearly announced by signs as drivers approach.

“We need to be controlling this,” McMahon said about the program, to gain the public’s trust. McMahon said speeding is also a major problem along Centennial Lane near several schools, near Long Reach High School, and Jeffers Hill Elementary, to name a few.

Ulman pledged that any revenue raised above the cost of the equipment and employees would go into traffic safety programs, including installation of sidewalks and pedestrian crossings in some places. Also, Ulman said the county would use the cameras only in areas directly connected to schools.”You’re not going to see cameras around the corner on a road with no nexus to that school.”

Speed limits around schools are usually 25 miles per hour when schools are starting or letting out.

The state’s 2009 camera law allows local governments to pass laws adopting speed cameras, which can be located within a half-mile of a school or highway work area. A $40 fine is imposed on speeders going more than 12 mph above the limit, but no points are assessed on their driving records. If approved, Howard would join Baltimore, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, along with the cities of Baltimore and Laurel, which already have cameras.

Ilchester is a rural road with no shoulders or sidewalks and most families live across the road from the four schools — two public and two private —on it. Commuters heading toward Route 100 from Baltimore County ascend from the Patapsco River, often at high speed, sparking complaints from residents like Edward Chaney.

Chaney said traffic on Ilchester has doubled in the past five years and the county declined to install speed bumps.

“Are we supposed to wait until a child is hit?” he asked. Using a downloaded iPhone speedgun app, he said he’s found average speeds near his home are typically over 45 mph though the speed limit is 30. “The largest problem we have in this community is speeding,” he said.

Police speed surveys of traffic at schools showed 18 percent of drivers going more than 12 mph over the limit. The surveys were all taken during the school year over a 48-hour period at each school. In the past five years, McMahon said, there have been 833 crashes on school zone roadways, including 109 personal injuries.

But critic Pat Dornan’s opposition to the cameras is typical of those who feel they are an invasion of privacy and just another way for government to collect revenues.

“These are one-eyed bandits,” said Dornan, who operates a home improvement business and organized a referendum campaign against a county income tax increase in 2003. Dornan said he started a speed camera information company in 2009, trying to sell the camera locations nationally for $20, but it failed because much of that information is available free.

He contends the cameras cause accidents rather than prevent them. “People slow down before the speed locations and they get rear-ended,” he said.