Fed-up citizens gunning for speeders They're using radar in new police effort

February 11, 1997|By Jill Hudson | Jill Hudson,SUN STAFF

Cathy and Mike Blemly have had it up to here with lawbreakers in their quiet Ellicott City neighborhood. So they've decided to arm themselves with a gun -- one that doesn't shoot bullets but radar beams.

The lawbreakers targeted by the Blemys are speeders.

The Blemlys and 42 other Howard County residents in five neighborhoods take several hours out of their weekends and other free time to clock their neighbors as part of the county police department's new Speed Monitoring and Awareness Radar Team (SMART).

The program allows citizens to use borrowed police radar equipment to record how fast people are driving in neighborhoods where the speed limit is 35 mph or less.

On a recent weekday afternoon, the Blemlys loaded their Volvo station wagon with a radar gun and a TV-size digital display signboard and drove to the First Evangelical Church in the Dunloggin area. There they donned glow-in-the-dark reflective vests and, braving the frigid temperatures, waited patiently for cars to come whizzing by on Chatham Road.

Within seconds, one did. A young woman in a blue minivan, two screaming children in the back seat, drove by.

"Thirty-six," Mike shouted to his wife. The figure was displayed on the signboard for all passing motorists to see.

Cathy shook her head in disgust as she logged the number -- 11 miles above the 25 mph limit -- in a book used to tally the speed of vehicles on the quiet street.

"This is a safe neighborhood, and we want to keep it that way," she said. "We don't want to take it for granted that things will stay the same. This is something we can do to help."

SMART volunteers have no authority to write speeding tickets, but they give the data from the radar surveys to police, who use it to target areas for additional patrols.

In Columbia, Kings Contrivance village resident Ross Kelley says police are more visible in his community since he and neighbor Tony Lisano set up a radar checkpoint along Shaker Drive in early December.

"The police are a little more aggressive with their tactics now," he said. "We really are their eyes and ears out in the community."

The SMART program was started last August in response to residents' growing concern about traffic safety, said police Sgt. Pete D'Antuono, head of the department's Traffic Division.

He said police "found that the community was particularly concerned about speeding cars in their neighborhoods. This program uses positive peer pressure. You can see your own neighbors out there, and it'll have an effect."

Though findings vary for neighborhoods, the Blemlys reported that almost 70 percent of the cars surveyed driving through Dunloggin on the day they checked posted speeds of at least 5 mph over the 25-mph speed limit.

Robert Evans, who has participated in the SMART program in his western Howard community of Highland, thinks it's fine that regular folks can't give out speeding tickets.

"I don't want to give out tickets -- not to neighbors," he said. "I'd rather have the police do that."

Besides, he said, most SMART users are not into pretending to be cops; their agenda is to get people to slow down.

"I just want to collect data and get the county to put in some things along the street to slow people down, like speed bumps," said Evans.

He added that the Highland community association is thinking of paying $3,000 to have four speed bumps installed along Prestwick Drive if the county refuses to do it.

"It's one thing we can do to make people aware of how fast they're going," he said. "Let the police come in and nail a few speeders who are constantly going too fast."

Many of the most notorious neighborhood speeders, some SMART participants said, don't notice how fast they are going, es- pecially suburban commuters whose door-to-door timetable is set in stone.

"They're out on [Interstate] 95 going 70 and 80 miles per hour, where speeding is hard to notice," Evans said.

"You actually have to put your brakes on to stay within the speed limit when you get to a residential neighborhood. So I don't think it's malicious, just careless. "

Kelley said he wrote a letter to County Executive Charles I. Ecker a few months ago, when his dog, Angel, was hit by a speeding truck on Shaker Drive. Kelley is afraid a child will be the next victim.

When he got a reply from the executive's office suggesting that the culprits were probably his neighbors, Kelley decided to be more active in the neighborhood war against reckless drivers, leading to his involvement in SMART.

"All a kid has to do is make a mistake and cross the street at the wrong time," he said. "Some of these drivers are never going to be able to stop at those kind of speeds.

"People always say you're probably being too emotional about speeding cars because you're a parent, and besides people aren't going as fast as you think they are," said Kelley, a father of two. "What this program does is put a device in your hands to say, 'Yeah, they are going as fast as we said they are.' "

Pub Date: 2/11/97

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