Cameras won't make reckless drivers smile Violators photographed by laser, video system state police are testing

November 22, 1997|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

Next week, drivers will speed down Interstate 495, maybe weaving in traffic or tailgating a tractor-trailer, before flying by a large 4x4 with state police markings.

Many of those drivers will relax when the police vehicle doesn't pursue, thinking they've escaped for another day of dangerous motoring.

But what they just drove past was a souped-up Ford Bronco equipped with calibrated lasers and three cameras designed to capture dangerous drivers on tape.

In a few weeks, those reckless drivers are likely to receive letters about their actions that day, with color photographs showing them in midviolation.

The Bronco is a prototype that will be tested on the Capital Beltway for the next year. Police say it could become a valuable weapon in their battle against aggressive driving.

"Needless to say, we're excited about this project," Col. David B. Mitchell, the state police superintendent, said at a news conference in Prince George's County yesterday. "It will give us new ways, innovative ways, to handle increased speeding and aggressive, dangerous drivers on our roads."

Since 1995, law enforcement officials say, they have been targeting aggressive drivers. State police issued 500,000 traffic citations last year, of which 200,000 were for aggressive-driving violations, police said.

If the high-tech truck proves successful, its widespread use could reduce the need for manpower-sapping speed traps, police officials said. During a typical four-hour deployment, for example, the truck could catch nearly 300 violators. It would take more than 20 officers to accomplish that in the same time.

Police are permitted only to issue warning letters based on the pictures. But if the project works as planned, officials might lobby legislators to make the pictures evidence for traffic citations.

"That's what this project is meant to do," said Raymond D. Cotton, a retired major who developed the $400,000, project before his recent retirement. "It's not just meant to send out warning letters in the mail."

Yesterday afternoon, as a light drizzle fell in Prince George's County, Cpl. Janet Harrison and Trooper Michael Allmond adjusted the settings of the laser gun and one of the video cameras, focusing both between two lanes of Capital Beltway traffic about 1,200 feet away.

With traffic rumbling by on the outer loop near U.S. 1, Harrison sat in a large swivel chair facing the truck's rear and demonstrated how the system works. She quickly typed on her computer key- board, scrolling through several images of a Jeep Cherokee stored in the computer after it was "captured" several days ago during a trial run.

First, the laser had targeted the Cherokee and clocked its speed at 72 mph, activating a camera that snapped six quick shots.

As the Jeep came closer, another laser verifies its speed and sent a signal for a camera to take pictures of the side of the vehicle, a view that can reveal tractor-trailer registration numbers.

As the Jeep went past, a third camera took six more shots of its rear, one of which recorded the license tag.

Troopers can override the automated system, which is based on speed, if they see a car driving recklessly, pushing a button to operate the cameras.

After a typical day of targeting aggressive drivers, Harrison and Allmond download the images into another computer at their barracks and print the pictures before looking up the tag numbers.

After that, an administrator sends warning letters about the offenses, along with the color photographs, to the owner of the car or truck.

Even though Harrison and Allmond didn't catch any speeding drivers yesterday -- their first official day of high-tech speed patrol -- their spirits didn't seem dampened.

"They're just going too slow. Might have to find a better hunting ground," Harrison said as the rain began to fall a little harder. "Maybe Monday."

Pub Date: 11/22/97

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