Speed camera worked, humans made mistakes


November 24, 2008|By MICHAEL DRESSER | MICHAEL DRESSER,getting.there@baltsun.com

Montgomery County thought it had Coleen Hanna dead to rights. There she was, caught on camera Aug. 6 in Silver Spring, flagrantly violating the speed limit in her sporty BMW.

The problem: Hanna, who lives in Edgewater and works in the Baltimore area, doesn't drive a BMW. She was certain she was nowhere near Montgomery County on that day. And the car in the photograph accompanying the speeding ticket looked nothing like her Ford Focus.

Nevertheless, Hanna was charged with being the driver with tag No. GZS 764 who was speeding through the streets of Silver Spring. The Montgomery speed enforcement folks traced that number to her, and they wanted their $40 pronto.

But hold on. Hanna said those tags had expired in March after she replaced them with agricultural plates. And as she examined the license plate photo, she noticed that the number that Montgomery officials decided was a 7 wasn't all that clear. Hanna asked the Motor Vehicle Administration to check for BMWs with similar numbers, and the agency found one sporting the tag GZS 364. (MVA folks don't get many strokes, but Hanna said they were nothing but helpful in providing the documents she sought.)

Hanna was less fortunate in dealing with the Montgomery Safe Speed Program. She sent a letter explaining her situation, along with the documentation, hoping to avoid a trip to that county. The result:

"The letter I sent was ignored," she said. "Instead I was given a date and time for a hearing."

It would have been easier for Hanna to just pay the $40 rather than take a day off work and pay the costs in gas and parking to go to Silver Spring, But she didn't think that would be right - even though no points were involved.

"I felt if I did, it was a lack of integrity," she said. "I would be saying I was in Montgomery County speeding that day, and that would be a lie."

So on Nov. 11, Hanna schlepped down to the District Court in Silver Spring to answer the charge. The judge examined her evidence and asked the Safe Speed representatives in the courtroom to squint at it, too. They agreed a blunder had been made in interpreting the photo. Case dismissed.

Maurice R. Nelson, director of automatic traffic enforcement for the Safe Speed Program, apologized to Hanna after her trial. He said he was embarrassed by his office's handling of the case and added that there have been "repercussions" as a result.

Nelson said Hanna's ticket breezed through four separate "fail-safe" points where the error should have been caught. He added that the ticket was issued as a result of human error, not a flaw in the speed camera technology.

The director said his office's policy on ambiguous tickets is "when in doubt, throw it out," but he acknowledged that didn't happen in Hanna's case. He agreed that his office compounded the error by failing to answer Hanna's letter, adding he has since increased the staff handling such correspondence.

Despite her experience, Hanna did not come away as an opponent of speed cameras. She thinks they have the potential to do far more good than harm.

But Hanna believes that there needs to be a way for motorists to challenge the facts of the case without being forced to travel halfway across the state.

Nelson said such a system is already in place and that people in Hanna's predicament need not jump through all the hoops she did. He said motorists outside Montgomery who believe they have been wrongly cited can call 866-818-3844 and get their tickets voided if there is any doubt of their accuracy.

"I would rather throw every one of them out that is in question," Nelson said.

My take: Montgomery has the right policies in place. But it can't permit such basic errors because speed camera opponents are ready to pounce on any imperfections to obstruct this life-saving program.

'Northeast Passage'

From time to time, a reader asks me to send copies of previous columns describing a "Northeast Passage" that bypasses the tolls and tribulations of Interstate 95 heading to the Northeast. With Thanksgiving nigh, here is a description of that low-hassle route, an especially attractive option for those traveling to northern New Jersey, the northern New York suburbs and New England:

From Baltimore, take Interstate 83 north to York, Pa. In York, take Eixt 19, Market Street east, and go straight on North Hills Road for about a mile and a half. Then take a right onto U.S. 30. Head east on 30 to Lancaster, where you pick up U.S. 222 heading northeast toward Reading. Stay on 222 as it bypasses Reading. (Most of the route from 83 to Reading is divided highway of near-interstate quality.)

North of Reading, 222 turns into a stop-and-go, three-lane highway for a relatively short stretch. (Plan a pit stop in Moselem Springs.) Just before Allentown, take Pennsylvania Route 100 north about 2 miles to Interstate 78. Take I-78 east to Interstate 287 in New Jersey. That is your jumping-off point for virtually any destination in northern Jersey and points beyond.

Tolls to I-78 and I-287 heading north: $0. Return trip: $1. Bypassing Delaware: Priceless.

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