Photos, letters warn drivers

Army technology used by police to spot aggressive motorists

April 03, 1999|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK -- Technology that lets the Army track speeding bullets is being used by state police to catch aggressive drivers on what is perhaps Maryland's nastiest stretch of highway.

Equipment developed at Aberdeen Test Center and installed in a Ford Bronco can scan more than 1,000 vehicles each hour on the Capital Beltway, providing a five-second video clip and snapshots of the region's most atrocious driving.

In the first two months of full-time use, more than 600 motorists caught bobbing, weaving and bullying their way through traffic have gotten stern letters listing their transgressions from the superintendent of the state police. The warning from Col. David B. Mitchell is accompanied by two color photos of their misdeeds.

"We're testing something we believe may be the future of law enforcement in highly congested areas," said state police spokesman Capt. Greg Shipley of Project ADVANCE (Aggressive Driving Video and Non-Contact Enforcement).

The pilot program will run through fall. Police and transportation officials in Florida, North Carolina and Indianapolis are watching Maryland's experiment.

Sgt. Janet Harrison, who oversees the daily operation of the Bronco, said that through testing and modification, police hope to perfect the technology "so that it can be duplicated and set up on the Baltimore Beltway and other hot spots."

The Capital Beltway is a 64-mile accident waiting to happen.

Bumper-to-bumper traffic can materialize in an instant, and hardly a day goes by without footage of splintered glass and mangled metal ap- pearing on local television news.

A survey of frequent Beltway drivers by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration last April said combative drivers cause most of their headaches.

Enforcement problem

Shipley said troopers face a dilemma: They can't ignore reckless driving, but stopping a car or truck on the Beltway increases the chances of an accident and causes rubbernecking delays.

Project ADVANCE is a spinoff of technology developed by the Instrumentation Development Team at Aberdeen Test Center for remote tracking of bullets speeding to a target, said Michael Zwiebel, who heads the team.

Federal transportation officials in Washington, well aware of the Beltway enforcement problem, saw a potential solution in the Aberdeen equipment. They provided $400,000 for the prototype and testing.

"We tried to use off-the-shelf hardware to save money but built the software ourselves," said Zwiebel.

State police rolled out the olive-and-taupe Bronco at a news conference in late 1997, but it took almost 18 months of field testing and adjustments by Aberdeen engineer Michael Shellem to turn a highly publicized device into a high-technology tool.

Project ADVANCE is targeting 10 accident hot spots, from Forest Heights in Prince George's County to Bethesda in Montgomery County, for enforcement.

Although immense overhead signs warn of the state troopers' presence -- a state requirement -- more than half of the truckers and commuters one recent morning did something stupid or illegal (or both) before the watchful laser and video eyes of Harrison and Tfc. Michael Allmond.

"Will you look at that!" exclaimed Harrison, as an 18-wheeler overshot the inner loop entrance to northbound Interstate 95, lurched onto the shoulder of the Beltway and started to back up.

A split second before he committed a moving violation, the driver spied the Bronco and jerked the truck to a stop. After the driver and the troopers stared at each other for several minutes, the driver signaled, carefully merged into traffic and gingerly drove to the next exit to reverse directions legally.

"People don't use the skills that got them a driver's license," Allmond said, shaking his head.

Other motorists became victims of technology.

The laser pointing out the rear window locked onto a blue, four-door Acura doing 71 mph in the second lane over from the right shoulder. The car covered the quarter-mile in a matter of seconds, but in those moments, a sensor on the bumper of the Bronco triggered the cameras to capture front, side and rear views of the car.

What was a blur to the eye became on a video monitor inside the Bronco a man in a white shirt and dark tie, jacket hanging from a rear window hook, engaged in personal grooming.

The owner of that Virginia car will get a letter from Mitchell in the next few days.

If the Acura had been an 18-wheeler, the cameras would have provided the Department of Transportation or Interstate Commerce Commission registration numbers from the cab door.

After 90 minutes along the road, Harrison and Allmond spend the rest of the day at their Linthicum barracks downloading and printing images, checking registrations and preparing letters.

Warnings only, for now

Police are permitted only to issue warning letters based on the pictures. If the prototype proves its worth, Shipley said, state police might lobby legislators to make the pictures evidence for traffic citations.

Harrison, a 14-year veteran, and Allmond, with 17 years on duty, bristle at the suggestion that a warning is a weak substitute for a ticket and a fine.

"This is an education process. Not all the time does money have to become involved," said Harrison. "You can't say an offender who got a ticket is going to learn any more than someone who gets a letter."

Pub Date: 4/03/99

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