Camera tested in school zone

Howard County tries device that calculates speed of passing cars

October 08, 2001|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

Some of the drivers racing down Montgomery Road in Elkridge craned their necks to gawk. Others whizzed by without taking any notice. But Maryland's first speed-detection camera saw them all.

The equipment -- mounted on twin poles at the western edge of the Elkridge Elementary School speed zone -- was activated for testing last week. The device that calculates each passing driver's speed is perched above a flashing school zone sign. A silver digital camera hangs from the other pole.

Howard County will not be issuing tickets from the equipment any time soon because state legislation that would allow the use of such equipment as a policing tool does not exist.

But the cameras are seen by many law enforcement experts as the next logical step in a running battle with speeders who can't easily be caught by more traditional police patrols. If the Howard experiment goes according to plan, these high-tech watchdogs might start popping up all over the state in the not too distant future.

"If it proves itself accurate and effective, we may go to the General Assembly to ask for approval in school zones," said George Frangos, staff engineer in Howard County's Department of Public Works. "I'm sure they're curious to know what we're up to."

Frangos said the General Assembly could begin considering such legislation as early as January.

Grumbles about the growing number of red-light cameras in the area mean the proposal will probably face tough questions from privacy advocates, opponents of using private companies to enforce the law, and people who hate the idea of getting caught automatically.

"Everyone is concerned about safety, but I have some reservations about tracking people and then later charging them," said state Sen. Christopher J. McCabe, a Howard County Republican. "It seems to me that we're still working out the kinks in the red-light camera program, so I have some reservations about implementing a similar program without demonstrable need for it."

Howard County has a six-month testing contract with Virginia-based Tecnicon International to operate the $50,000 equipment. Frangos said a federal grant covers most of the expenses.

This week, Tecnicon President Steven C. Alonge sat in a parked car just off Montgomery Road and watched the equipment record the speeders flying past.

The Howard County legislative delegation will get a demonstration of the equipment and be able to ask Alonge questions about it this month.

If the Assembly says yes, the camera on Montgomery Road -- a notorious raceway -- would be used to dissuade the dozens of speeders who zip past Elkridge Elementary School, even when children are waiting for buses.

What the equipment does

The equipment can take thousands of photos each day, Alonge said.

Here's how it works: A device called Autosense aims a laser beam at passing vehicles. As a vehicle passes through the beam, it calculates the speed. If a car is traveling faster than the 25 mph speed limit when the school zone lights are activated, the digital camera will snap a series of photos showing the car, the blinking school zone lights and a readout of the speed.

Beyond speed control, the equipment has several other capabilities, Alonge said. It can tell what kind of vehicle is passing through, and it can determine if a vehicle is tailgating.

Primary interest for schools

County officials said they have no plans to use the camera for anything other than speed detection during school zone times.

Alonge said he thinks the safety aspect of the camera will rally the public to accept it.

"The speeding part -- I know that's difficult for people to accept," Alonge said. "But I think there's enough rationale for safety in school zones for people to accept this."

Colleen Boisvert, a day care provider and mother who lives steps from the new camera, said she is constantly worried about children's safety.

`A madhouse out here'

"People fly down this road like it's some kind of raceway -- like there's not even a school nearby," she said. "If some idiot who flies through here loses control, he's going to hit a bunch of kids waiting for the bus."

Although Boisvert lives less than an eighth of a mile from Elkridge Elementary School, she said she does not let her 9-year-old walk to school because "it's a madhouse out here."

Cameras used in other states

If the General Assembly allows the cameras to issue tickets, Maryland would join Washington, D.C., and a small number of states -- California, Oregon, Arizona and Colorado -- that use similar technology.

Some residents said they shudder at the thought of speed cameras joining the fleet of red-light cameras that have been used in Howard County since 1998.

"It's sort of like they're trying to monitor everything," said Rondle Banks, who lives in the 5800 block of Diggers Lane near the camera site.

Washington has used speed cameras since July 2. The six Washington cameras -- which aren't confined to school zones -- generated 23,553 notices of violations and $413,814 in fines last month.

Frangos said that because Washington's cameras are portable, they cost about four or five times as much as the Tecnicon camera being tested in Howard.

"It's a waste of money," Banks said about speed cameras. "Once people know there's a camera here, they'll mosey past it and then speed up again. It would be better to have patrol cars in the area."

Survey shows support

A survey of 6,000 drivers conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 1997 revealed strong support for the cameras.

More than seven in 10 drivers approved of such equipment to reduce speeding and running red lights and stop signs, and nine out of 10 approved of its use in school zones, according to the survey.

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