Is your privacy at risk?

Montgomery County Council proposes bill to install cameras that catch drivers on their phones


Alex Silber

In December, Maryland State Senator Jeff Waldstreicher drafted a bill that would allow for the installation of on-road automated cameras designed to catch drivers on their phones.

By Jesse Rider

People who text while driving have a lot to worry about: fines, striking other vehicles and being unaware of their surroundings. But all of those worries seem to fly out the window when they hear their phone buzz. Texters in Montgomery County, however, may have to start ignoring that buzz for good or risk being caught on film.

Montgomery County Council Vice President Tom Hucker has been pushing for the installation of on-road automated cameras designed to catch drivers on their phones. In early December, Hucker convinced Maryland State Senator Jeff Waldstreicher to draft a bill that would allow for Montgomery County to implement such cameras, which would be the first of their kind in the U.S.

The County Council will review the bill Jan. 28 before they potentially pass it on to the Maryland General Assembly, which consists of Waldstreicher and other Maryland representatives, said Hucker’s Legislative Aide for Transportation Sean Emerson. 

If the General Assembly passes the bill, the County Council would implement it. 

According to the proposal, Montgomery County would hire non-police officers to drive county-sanctioned vehicles with cameras attached — the cameras would be difficult to mount on regular police cars. After the cameras capture footage of a driver through the car’s windows, police officers would then review the tape to determine if the driver was on their phone illegally. If police officers find the driver guilty, the county could charge the driver with a civil penalty of up to $500.

A Maryland police officer — who spent three-and-a-half years on the road — believes the monitoring system could do the work of 40 police officers; the system could be active 24/7 and police officers in places such as Silver Spring and Damascus don’t usually have time to look for drivers on their phones, he said. The officer also said that the system would be cost effective since cameras and drivers cost a fraction of a police officer’s salary.

Issues regarding the implementation of the system, especially privacy, have caused controversy throughout Montgomery County.

“When people are in their vehicles, it’s like being in their homes,” junior Maayan Harris said. “The government cannot just put cameras in someone’s house. Everyone has things that they don’t want public, and the government shouldn’t get to look in.”

Conversely, some residents think the cameras would lead to safer streets.

“Privacy is important, but safety is definitely more important,” junior Simon Merenstein said. “The cameras would help because drivers on their phones have become the most dangerous part of driving.”

The officer believes the system won’t violate any rights since citizens already have less privacy while in a vehicle; a cop can always look through another car’s window and see someone on their phone, he said. 

“I get general concerns about privacy because a lot of consumer products have the potential to violate our privacy unknowingly,” Emerson said. “But in this case, this technology is aiming to enhance an enforcement that already happens with cops.”

Hucker is optimistic about the system, but it may take some time to convince others of the good that could come from the system because of the mindsets of most residents, Emerson said. These residents commonly worry that the system may lead to further invasions of privacy since the public would become normalized to the invasions.  

“Anytime there’s a new technology, there’s an inherent suspicion about it,” Emerson said. “In the early 1900s, when cars were introduced, people wanted them to be speed governed to below 25 miles per hour so they wouldn’t go too fast and run a bunch of people over.”

Montgomery County Council President Katz’s Chief of Staff Lisa Madel-Trupp is doubtful the system will get implemented because residents have various privacy concerns, she said.

To prepare for the Council meeting, Hucker has researched the impact of distracted driving and worked closely with advocates and allies who support the bill, Emerson said. Hucker’s team has even looked into getting possible pilot cars through an independent company.

“We found that even if the phone is mounted on the dashboard, the AI is sophisticated enough to detect when someone is actually holding their phone,” Emerson said. “Also, the distracted driving cameras would look directly horizontally into the vehicle, so it’s the same view anybody driving on the road would see.”

Mandel-Trupp said the appeal of being the first to do something may be blinding some to the problems with the system.

“Montgomery County is known to be the first in many things,” she said. “But you don’t want to be the first to do something if it’s gonna come back to bite you.”