Fighting speeders with cameras, shame

July 29, 2005|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,SUN STAFF

Drivers in Howard County should be on the lookout for another type of camera that police will begin using next month when students return to the classroom.

These "speed cameras" will not trigger $75 tickets as the ones at red lights do, but they will snap crystal-clear photos of drivers blowing through school zones. Pictures will be mailed to speeders' homes along with a formal warning and brief lecture on pedestrian deaths.

Call it safety through shame.

No one is disputing the goal, but some state officials are unhappy about the method. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has twice vetoed legislation allowing the use of cameras to issue up to $100 speeding tickets for driving more than 10 mph over the limit in school and residential zones.

The bill "is another step toward the pervasive use of cameras by the government to monitor and regulate the conduct of its people," Ehrlich said in a statement after vetoing the legislation, which applied only to Montgomery County. "There may be times when this type of surveillance is appropriate. I am, however, reluctant to approve its use in the absence of extraordinary circumstances."

Mailing warnings, rather than tickets, allows county officials to skirt that prohibition. But one state lawmaker said that moving forward with buying the technology and building the infrastructure for automated speed enforcement violates the spirit of the governor's veto.

"This is basically a pilot program to collect data to convince us we need them," said Del. Warren E. Miller, a Howard Republican. "But the only purpose for speed cameras is to get fat on revenues. And I'm curious as to what county officials think has changed since the veto. They're going to have to wait at least five years, in my book."

Police Chief Wayne Livesay said the department receives more complaints about residential speeding than any other problem - and that cameras are the most efficient and effective way of improving traffic safety.

Looking ahead

"We want our system up and running when a bill does pass," he said. "And I have no doubt that it will, either under this administration or another one."

Until that happens, uniformed officers will be assigned to school zones during the 30 minutes before classes start and the 30 minutes after classes end. The officers will carry hand-held radar guns much like the ones already in use, but these will carry digital cameras on top of them.

When the officer pulls the trigger, a laser beam will measure the distance between the gun and the car, and clock its speed. That number will appear on the photograph displayed in the digital camera's rear viewer.

Images of speeders will be saved; others will be discarded. The evidence will be downloaded into a computer database and warnings mailed.

Decisions to be made

The posted speed limit in school zones is 25 mph, and Capt. Glenn Hansen said that officials have not decided what speeds will generate warnings and which schools will get the cameras.

"We don't want to issue warnings to everyone - only the most egregious violators," he said.

High-risk areas

After police are comfortable with the technology and the results help them identify high-risk areas, Livesay said, the county likely would mount speed cameras and have them work without an officer present.

Hansen said it took five years from the time Howard County tested a red-light camera until it won state approval to issue automated fines in 1998.

Five states and Washington allow speed cameras, according to Ehrlich's veto message. Livesay said he does not think that the cameras are appropriate for highways. And students who speed will not be reported to high school officials.

Tickets not the issue

"I'm not concerned about who's getting the tickets," said Pamela Blackwell, coordinator of student services for Howard County schools. "Whomever is violating speed limits in and around our school zones should not be putting our kids in jeopardy or disobeying the law."

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