Film is out, but digital red-light cameras are in

County police first in Md. to install new technology

Howard County

March 12, 2004|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,SUN STAFF

Six years ago, Howard County was the first in the state to use film-based red-light cameras to identify and fine scofflaws who blow through them.

But film is so last century.

Now, Howard's Police Department is leading the way in installing digital cameras, which do not require tedious waits for film processing. And drivers who use gimmicks to beat the old cameras should take notice: The new ones are not thwarted by sprays applied to license plates to block the bright flash from the older cameras, police said.

"The digital cameras won't use a flash, so those products will be ineffective here," said Sherry Llewellyn, a police spokeswoman.

The state's first digital camera is in operation at Snowden River Parkway and McGaw Road in Columbia. Howard is leading about 14 localities -- mostly in Southern Maryland -- in a push to upgrade red-light cameras from wet-film to digital technology by the end of this year, police said.

Though initially decried as an invasion of privacy for motorists, red-light cameras are being used by communities across Maryland and the country to reduce red-light-running and accidents at intersections.

Critics have charged that jurisdictions have used the cameras to boost revenue -- with motorists' safety as an afterthought.

"The technology can certainly enhance public safety and law enforcement efforts," said John White, a spokesman for the AAA's Mid-Atlantic chapter. "Our only concern is that it becomes standardized, so it doesn't become a fund-raising tool for jurisdictions."

White, however, called Howard's red-light program a "model" for others.

Howard operates the Regional Automated Enforcement Center in Columbia, a central office for 14 communities, from Bel Air to Hyattsville, to use to process red-light camera citations. Altogether, the communities have about 100 cameras that will be converted to digital, officials said. Several other Maryland jurisdictions have systems that are run separately from the Howard County center.

Two key reasons for the switch to digital: better clarity of photographic images and more efficient processing, according to Lt. Tim Black, a Howard County police officer who helps oversee the center.

In recent years, Howard tested digital cameras from different makers before settling on a system made by LaserCraft Inc. of Atlanta. Only a handful of companies make digital red-light cameras worldwide, and a half-dozen or so states have gone digital, according to LaserCraft's president, Scott W. Patterson.

The system uses a laser to track vehicles moving through the intersection and shoots four photographs, two with close-ups of the car's license plate. The old cameras snap two, and one is enlarged to show the license plate close-up, said Patterson.

Also, the wet-film cameras require several steps before a citation can be mailed out. Workers must collect the film from cameras a couple of times a week, have it processed at a lab in Baltimore, convert photos to a digital image and have it reviewed by police and vendor employees to determine if a $75 citation should be issued.

Howard County is able to mail out those citations by the seventh or eighth day after the violation, Black said. State law allows a two-week window, he said.

But with the digital system, there is no need to send workers to pull film or wait for photo processing. The digital cameras transmit photos through a secure data line directly to the center.

"We can use it almost immediately," Black said.

Patterson noted other advantages to LaserCraft's system. For one, the camera-and-laser unit is mounted above ground. Wet-film cameras typically require installation of magnetic loops in roads that trigger the camera and flash.

"We don't have to cut the roads up to put them in," he said. "That is a big advantage of our system."

The digital system uses existing lighting at intersections to take photos at night, eliminating the need for a bright flash that could distract motorists, Patterson said. In some cases, lighting at certain intersections could be improved, police officials said.

Howard is operating 10 wet-film cameras and one digital camera. In the past, up to 26 wet-film cameras, which were supplied by a company whose contract expired in January, have been used. Black said he expects the county to install the same number of digital cameras.

Critics have charged that the companies that provide the cameras or manage the paperwork can manipulate the systems to generate more citations, and thus increase their revenue. Howard has taken precautions against such criticism, officials said.

Previously, the county rented each wet-film camera for about $1,700, and paid a contractor a percentage of the citation fees to cover the back-office processing costs, police said.

Howard County's system has now evolved into a flat-fee system, officials said. The red-light camera program is funded entirely by the motorists paying the fines.

With LaserCraft, the county pays a flat fee of $2,445 a month per camera and a processing fee that is about the same amount, Black said.

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