During a debate on upcoming state legislation, Montgomery County Council Member Will Jawando had one thought about installing distracted-driving cameras on county roads.
“I think this is a bad idea,” he said Monday at a council hearing on legislation for the 2020 General Assembly session.
One bill aims to reduce distracted driving by allowing roadside cameras to issue tickets for violations.
The new technology, recently unrolled in Australia, would use artificial intelligence to scan photos of drivers for illegal cellphone use. If drivers are caught on their phones, a police technician would review the photos to determine whether the driver violated state law.
The bill, introduced by state Sen. Jeff Waldstreicher at the request of Council Member Tom Hucker, would only apply to Montgomery County.
Council members and the county executive are asked to weigh in on county-specific legislation introduced by the Montgomery delegation before the start of every General Assembly session.
They can support, not support, or not issue a position.
After a lengthy discussion, council members deferred a decision on the bill until they had more information on the new technology and the potential consequences of a countywide rollout.
Jawando, one of the bill’s strongest opponents, said the council should vote not to support the legislation.
“I think there are serious, serious privacy concerns here,” he said. “I just think there are too many issues that come up with this — and the technology has not advanced far enough — for us to go down this path.”
For the bill’s supporters, it’s a way to increase pedestrian safety in a county struggling with recent traffic injuries and fatalities. But council members were deeply divided over the legislation on Monday, raising concerns over privacy, deployment, and whether the new technology would disproportionately affect people of color.
Hucker said an Olney-based company called Distracted Driving Collection Services LLC was developing its own cameras that could be used in the program. But it’s unclear whether they would operate like the cameras used in Australia, which constantly screen roadways and specifically scan for cellphone use.
Baylen McAdoo, listed as the owner of the Olney company on the state’s business database, did not respond to a call for comment on Wednesday.
A representative responded to an introductory message sent to the company’s Twitter account on Monday, but did not answer follow-up questions seeking identification and more information about the technology.
Maryland prohibits texting or using a handheld phone while driving, though hands-free calls are allowed. There are some narrow exceptions, Hucker said in a separate interview on Tuesday, including emergency calls or using a GPS system.
“Obviously, any data that comes in from these kinds of cameras has some inaccuracies,” he said. “That’s why we need a human to decide whether they’re accurate.”
A former state delegate, Hucker said he heard the same concerns over privacy while working on bills to legalize speed cameras and school bus cameras — now widely deployed in Montgomery County and across the state.
But Jawando, the council’s only attorney, said the proposed distracted-driving cameras were significantly different because they offered a detailed look at the drivers inside the car. There were serious privacy concerns if officers could monitor passenger behavior or make out the content on a driver’s cellphone, he said.
It also opened the door to potential discrimination, he added.
Individual officers would be tasked with determining whether a driver’s cellphone use violated state law. Minorities could be disproportionately affected by citations, Jawando said, as they are by traffic stops and stop-and-search policies, according to nationwide data.
“And then, what are your due process rights to contest the ticket and say, ‘Hey, that wasn’t me?’” he added. “If [the cameras] are taking hundreds of thousands of photos, is it really likely that our court system can deal with this?”
Waldstreicher emphasized that the bill was intended as a pilot and wouldn’t go into full effect immediately after it was passed.
The county would test the cameras for several months without issuing citations, he said. For several months after that, officers would send warnings without attaching tickets.
“This would only roll out after a testing period and a warning period,” Waldstreicher said. “It would be a very gradual approach before it became a full-fledged program.”
Tickets from the cameras would be civil infractions and wouldn’t add points to a driver’s record. Penalties for the violation could not exceed $500, according to a draft version of the bill.
The Montgomery County Police Department, which would implement the program, opposed the legislation on Monday.
Capt. Thomas Didone, director of the department’s traffic division, said MCPD is renegotiating its contracts with speed and school bus camera vendors and didn’t have time to implement a new program.
Sarah Morningstar, a legislative analyst for the county’s Office of Intergovernmental Relations, said the police department and county attorney also had “serious concerns” about the technology and potential privacy issues.
“There are some pretty significant wrinkles in the bill, as we see it now,” she said.
Instead of the county adopting speed cameras, Didone suggested that the department increase its enforcement of distracted driving. He proposed a pilot program using unmarked police cars to better monitor drivers, coupled with an enforcement “blitz” for a few days every month.
“We’d add officers to the streets during the morning rush hour, afternoon lunch break, and evening rush hour, when most of the offenses are occurring,” he said in an interview after the hearing. “Coupled with a social media campaign to really show people we’re out there and taking this seriously.”
Didone told council members that the delegation should consider a bill to make distracted driving a more serious violation that adds cumulative points to a driver’s license.
The state could also consider removing a driver’s ability to negotiate for probation before judgement, which lets first-time offenders avoid adding points to their license, he said at the hearing.
But Hucker, who helped develop the bill, said that implementing statewide legislation would be more difficult than passing a county-specific law designed to reduce fatalities on public roads.
“We already know we have an epidemic of distracted driving,” he said at the hearing on Monday. “… To me, while there are wrinkles to be worked out, there are wrinkles in all kinds of bills. That is not a good reason for us not to seek the authority to use every tool in our toolbox to keep our residents safe.”