Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Sykesville Residents Demand Referendum, Rebuke Camera Ordinance

Sykesville residents will be able to decide for themselves whether or not to allow the speed camera program which the town council voted to approve last month. Under the town charter, a newly ordinances can be forced to a referendum if 15% of the town's registered voters sign a petition within 20 days of its passage. The required number of signatures for this petition was 338, but the organizers had only 11 days to gather them because they only became aware of the right to petition for a referendum 9 days after the bill was passed. This set a very high bar which the newly formed organization needed to meet. In addition, the effort was hampered by miserable rainy weather during the last weekend before the deadline, forcing petitioners to carry the signed forms in ziplock bags and tupperware containers to keep them from getting soaked. However on Sunday March 14 the group's organizer, Sykesville resident Chris Martin, turned in the petition to the Mayor with signatures from 529 town residents, 56% more than the required number, and 23.5% of the total registered voters in the town.

The petition signatures will still need to be verified by the town clerk. Assuming no excuse is found to invalidate it the town will schedule the referendum either at the next regular election or at a special election. This would make Sykesville residents the first in Maryland to have the opportunity to directly vote for or against speed cameras. In other instances in the US when photo enforcement has been put to a direct popular vote, The People have rejected the cameras EVERY SINGLE TIME.

UPDATED 3/30/2009:
The Sykesville town clerk has approved the petition. The referendum is scheduled for TUESDAY MAY 4, 2010. If you are a Sykesville resident but are not registered to vote the deadline to register is Monday April 19, 2010. Voter Registration forms may be picked up at the Sykesville Town House, 7547 Main Street, Sykesville, MD 21784 or at the Carroll County Board of Elections, 225 N. Center Street, Westminster, MD 21157. For further information call the Town Clerk at 410-795-8959 or the Carroll County Board of Elections at 410-386-2080.

The final version of the ordinance not only authorizes speed cameras but designates all roads within a 1/2 mile radius, including many roads not adjacent to the grounds of a school. Sykesville had only one school zone designated previously and two of the facilities did not have ANY roads designated as school zones near them previously. The ordinance sets the speed limits in all school zones at 25mph, including portions of Springfield Ave/Main Street/ West Friendship Road where the speed limit is currently 30mph -- lowering the speed by 5mph and turning currently safe legal drivers into "lawbreakers".

You can read the full text of the ordinance HERE

Sykesville residents: this is your chance to have your say on this issue. Probably your ONLY chance EVER. IF YOU DON'T VOTE YOU HAVE NO RIGHT TO COMPLAIN!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

State Run Speed Camera Money To Go Into General Fund

One of the points which speed camera supporters use to try to refute arguments that governments want speed cameras only because they make money, is that in Maryland the money is supposed to be allocated to specific purposes. We previously demonstrated that the restriction written into state law that speed camera money is to be spent only on "public safety" was completely meaningless, because local governments were free to re-define this to include whatever budget items they wanted.

Now the state of Maryland has provided another excellent example of how these types of restrictions are easily circumvented when the money is desired for other purposes. A preliminary budget document from the Department of State Police notes that in the case of freeway work zone camera revenue, "Under the law, the balance of speed monitoring revenues is to be distributed to DSP to fund “roadside enforcement activities”. It also states that "In light of the current fiscal environment,"[...] "DLS recommends budget bill language that
requires DSP to offset speed monitoring revenues in excess of $5.0 million with a general fund reversion." In other words, if the project makes just a little money, spend it on the purpose required by law. But if it makes LOTS of money, cut the specified budget by an equal amount, and then use the remainder to help Governor O'Malley close the state's looming general fund budget gap. Never mind that doing so might well violate state law, or at least that it provides yet another example of how ALL the restrictions built into the state's speed camera law are in fact unenforced or unenforceable and serve no purpose other than for public relations.

The state's freeway work zone speed camera program is still a pilot project, utilizing only two mobile units so far. According to the document, the Maryland State Police have entered a temporary contract which will expire in June 2010 and are reviewing proposals for a permanent contract, which would allow a full blown program to get into full swing right about the time state officials have cleared the 2010 elections.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Nationwide Traffic Fatalities Continue To Decline

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has issued its annual summary of traffic safety for 2009, which shows that roads in the US are the safest they have ever been. Traffic fatalities dropped 8.9% nationwide compared to 2008. This follows a 10.5% decline from 2007-2008. The report showed that nationwide fatalities were 21.9% lower in 2009 than in 2005. The total fatalities nationwide were at the lowest level since 1954, when the number of US drivers was about 1/2 what it is today.

Traffic fatalities per vehicle mile also dipped from 1.25 per 100million vehicle-miles in 2008 to 1.16 in 2009, a continuation of a 30 year long decline in fatalities per mile traveled.

The report largely attributes the decline to campaigns to increase seatbelt use and reduce drunk driving. Safety improvements to roads and vehicles were also cited. The large decline seen in 2008 had been attributed to rising gas prices and poor economic conditions cutting miles traveled. Reduced total driving and reduced recreational driving were cited for the 2009 decline as well, however there was an small (0.2%) increase in vehicle miles traveled in 2009 despite recession conditions. The report did not list automated traffic enforcement, which is still only used on a very small minority of roads in the US, as a contributing factor.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Sykesville Residents Wage Desperate Battle to Stop 'Greed Cameras'

A group of Sykesville residents are pushing to have the town's recently approved speed forced to a popular vote. A new town ordinance approved the use of speed cameras in the town and also converted almost the entire town into a gigantic school zone solely and expressed for the purpose of using of speed cameras, despite a statement by the SHA making it clear that this practice is NOT appropriate. The streets designated for speed camera use were never considered or marked as school zones previously, and at least one of the roads which will become a 'school zone' only barely comes within 1/2 mile of a facility which the town never previously considered to be a 'school'. The final version of the ordinance designates all roads within a 1/2 mile radius of the three facilities as school zones, and sets the speed limits in all school zones at 25mph, including portions of Springfield Ave/Main Street/ West Friendship Road where the speed limit is currently 30mph -- lowering the speed by 5mph and turning currently safe legal drivers into "lawbreakers".

Read the full text of the ordinance HERE .

The Sykesville town council voted 5-1 to approve the measure : Mayor Mike Miller and council members Leslie Reed, Frank Robert Jr., Ian Shaw and Chris True voted in favor of stripping citizens of their legal rights and subjecting them to mass surveillance for money, while Councilman Leo Keenan voted against.

Under state law the town is permitted to use camera revenue to increase its total budget by up to 10%, which after expenses would require sending out approximately 12,000 citations per year or about 3 tickets per resident.

The town held two hearings regarding the cameras. At the first several residents spoke out against the cameras, but the second was rescheduled to February 22 due to snow with some town residents who had planned to speak against the cameras being unaware of the new date, and the council voted for the measure at the end of the rescheduled meeting while one council member (who went on the record as being against the ordinance) was absent.

The town council's actions so enrages one resident so much that he has started a petition drive to force the ordinance to a referendum. However the requirements of this effort are extremely stringent: collect signatures from 15% of the town's registered voters (338 signatures) within 20 days of the measure -- and the organizers lost 9 days before they could learn the petition requirements to even get started.

Nevertheless the effort is off to a good start, with the petitioners collecting 20-25% of the necessary signatures in the first weekend. The group's organizer, Chris Martin, stated that on one day he got 85 signatures while meeting only 5 people who supported the cameras. NO SPEED CAMERA PROGRAM IN THE US HAS EVER SURVIVED BEING PUT TO A REFERENDUM. However due to the ridiculous timeline the effort to get it on the ballot needs help!!! Anyone who wants to sign the petition or who is in a position to help collect signatures should please contact Chris Martin by email or by phone at (240)328-7634.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Montgomery County Planning Another Speed Camera Expansion

(updated 3/23/2010)
The Montgomery County Council wants to authorize the County Executive to add more speed cameras without the need for him to first get additional approval or hold public hearings.

In 2010 the Montgomery County Council voted to double the number of fixed pole speed cameras in use and wrote an estimated $29.3million in revenue into their Fiscal Year 2010 budget from traffic violations which were not yet committed (That amount was approximately 50% more than the $20million the cameras brought in for FY09, according to data from the county's proposed FY11 budget. In this budget document, camera revenues are stated to go into "County General Fund Revenues", not into a special fund reserved for "public safety" as county officials claim). However they now estimate that they will receive a total of only $17.2million by the end of the fiscal year in June. Montgomery County is facing an estimated $600million budget gap in FY2011, and have cited their "lost" camera revenue as one of the reasons for this. (Apparently previous years of excessive spending now coming home to roost had nothing to do with it. The council's vote back in 2008 to give county homeowners 4 years worth of property tax increases in a single year was insufficient to compensate for the problem).

The county claims the reason they "lost" $12million in camera revenue was because of a change in state law which permits "school zone cameras" to issue tickets only on weekends. There are already at least 212 camera sites in Montgomery County (combined fixed and mobile), 119 managed by the county and the remainder managed by municipalities (Chevy Chase, Takoma Park, Rockville, and Gaithersburg). 80% of these are designated as "residential speed cameras", meaning that unlike "school zone" cameras permitted in the rest of the state these cameras issue citations 24/7. So the reality is that only a small percentage of cameras had their hours of operation reduced by the change. The county council also voted on the FY10 budget in May 2009, a month after the change to state law was passed, so the impact if any was known at that time.

Under the bill, labeled 7-10, (see text of the bill here), the County Executive would be permitted to authorize any number of new speed cameras by executive order at any time (in order to fix such budget shortfalls). There would be no need to consult the council or the public. There would also be no need to obtain traffic studies to ensure that the speed limit was appropriate, or to determine what effect drivers slowing down to 10 mph at the new camera sites will have on traffic congestion (Montgomery County's Traffic Congestion is already the 4rth worst in the US. Wanna shoot for #1?). So next time there is an unexpected revenue shortfall, they need only approve an unlimited number of new mobile camera sites with no discussion or consideration.

The bill is scheduled for a hearing on March 23rd at 7:30pm.

Maryland Lawmakers Want School Buses to Issue Photo Tickets

Several state lawmakers from Frederick County want to turn all the school buses in the state into roving camera ticket vans.

The legislation (Senate Bill 1001 and House Bill 1376) is sponsored by six members of the Frederick County delegation to the general Assembly (Senator Brinkley (R), Delegates Stull (R), G. Clagett(D), Elliott(R), Hecht(D), and Jenkins(R)).

Under current Maryland law, it is illegal to pass a bus from either direction while the bus is stopped with flashers on, or to stop closer than 20 feet from a bus parked with its flashers on, with the exception of passing on a divided roadway from the opposite direction. This legislation would permit those violations to be enforced by cameras affixed to the many thousands of school buses in the state.

The features of legislation include the following:
  • Permits evidence to be admitted "without authentication"
  • Citations are the responsibility of the vehicle owner even if they were not driving
  • Does not state that the camera operator (or bus driver) needs to appear at court hearings, and does not state that the accused has the right to request the operator appear
  • Explicitly lowers the burden of proof for the state to the lowest level possible
  • Does not bar the camera vendor or the bus driver (who provide the evidence for court cases) from receiving a portion of ticket fees
  • Does not contain any "public notification" requirement (such as the use of signs) to inform people in the area that they are subject to being photographed
  • Does not explicitly state that the camera images need to prove a violation took place (for example, that the flashers were in fact on and that vehicle was not already passing before the lights went on), only that they need to show the vehicle's license plate number.
None of the above would be allowable in the US system under the US legal system for "criminal" violations, such as with career criminals and violent offenders. However because we are instead talking about a far worse class of citizens (drivers), lawmakers attempt to get around this by lowering the offense to a "civil" violation (as with other types of photo enforcement) and interpret this to mean that the rights of the citizen can be freely ignored in order to allow for cost effective assembly-line justice.

The fines would be set at $100. One of the sponsors of the bill (Senator Brinkley) stated that he thought fines should be raised to $500 while still having owner responsibility and a reduced burden of proof.

We wrote to two sponsors of the bill (Senator Brinkley and Delegate G. Claggett) and asked for more information about the legislation, including whether there was any data showing that these cameras would reduce accidents. When they did not respond after 1 week we did our own research. According to a National Highway Safety Traffic Administration report : "American students are nearly eight times safer riding in a school bus than with their own parents and guardians in cars. The fatality rate for school buses is only 0.2 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled (VMT) compared to 1.5 fatalities per 100 million VMT for cars." We discovered another report which stated that in the entire US, every year out of the 25million students who take school buses there are an average of 15 "pedestrian fatalities at school bus stops". This figure is extremely tragic, but it apparently includes fatalities from students being hit by buses rather than cars and other accidents which were not the result of passing incidents, and it is less than 2% of traffic fatalities involving school children.

We could not find any government studies to determine whether or not our children will ever want or need the legal rights Americans used to have before the advent of photo enforcement.

The bills will have a hearing in the House Environmental Matters Committee on March 9 and in the Senate Judicial Proceedings committee on March 25.