Howard in no hurry to have speed cameras

Officials slowly measure school zone speeding

August 29, 2010|By Larry Carson, The Baltimore Sun

Dale Klamut of Ellicott City can't wait for Howard County to install speed cameras near his home.

Klamut, his wife, Kim, and two sons, ages 10 and 13, live across busy Ilchester Road from Bonnie Branch Middle School. Ilchester Elementary and two Catholic schools are close by. Rush hour speeders from all the new developments in the area and commuters headed toward Route 100 from Baltimore County create a danger every day, he said.

"It's crazy, absolutely crazy," in front of his house each morning, he said, convinced that the cameras would solve the problem. But more than a year after the state law allowing speed cameras took effect, Howard County remains one of the largest jurisdictions in Maryland without any. Although county officials supported passage of the state enabling law, no local legislation authorizing the cameras has been written as county police slowly research speeding near every county school.

In Maryland, the cameras seem to have highlighted the political divide between large, metropolitan jurisdictions run by Democrats, and more Republican-dominated counties where ideological objections to automated speed enforcement often surface. Howard County appears to be an exception

Police officials around the state have said speed cameras can help them expand their reach in controlling speeding. State government, Baltimore City and Baltimore, Prince George's and Montgomery counties are using the cameras now. Voters in Sykesville, on the border between Howard and Carroll counties, rejected the idea in a referendum this year and Republican Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold has said he objects to the "Big Brother approach" to law enforcement.

As Howard County's 72 public schools reopen Monday, county police will resume a detailed effort to measure speeding near each building. The results of that study could help police make up their mind about whether to ask County Executive Ken Ulman for a bill allowing the cameras.

The long, painstaking research is the result of a political compromise that gave speed camera legislation — sponsored by Howard State Sen. James N. Robey, a former county executive and county police chief — a final push in the General Assembly in 2009. The resulting law sharply limits the cameras' uses, so Howard's chief William J. McMahon isn't certain camera enforcement is worthwhile under the restrictions.

"We have to make sure the more narrow application of the law makes sense for us," McMahon said. Measuring the extent of speeding near every county school will show whether there's enough of a problem to bother with the cameras, he said.

Howard officials backed Robey's multi-year effort to get the cameras approved, but McMahon said he favored the original proposal to allow the cameras on any local road with speed limits up to 45 mph. That would have meant catching speeders who fly down the county's large collector roads and Columbia's broad boulevards. But the state law only permits cameras within a half-mile of schools and at highway work sites. The $40 fine applies only if a driver is traveling at more than 12 mph over the speed limit, and each local government must enact its own legislation to begin using the cameras.

"I think automated speed enforcement potentially has a place along with other programs," McMahon said.

County police started last year placing radar devices near every school building for two days each, measuring speeds and traffic volume and are now about 70 percent done, he said, and should be complete by October. Then, after some analysis of the results and accident data, he'll be ready with a recommendation — perhaps by November.

Klamut volunteers to help with traffic at Bonnie Branch each morning, and, he said, drivers hit 60 mph and more on the road, where the official limit is 30. "There have been several close calls," he said, when children have had to run to avoid being hit.

He signaled a man to slow down one morning, he said, and the driver instead sped up, then had to swerve violently to avoid a turning school bus. Police radar units slow things for a time, but the speeding always resumes, Klamut said.

Police said their radar measurements over 48 hours from last December, found 605 vehicles out of 7,203 using Ilchester Road were speeding at more than 11 mph over the limit. That's slightly more than 8 percent. Police found many more speeders at Atholton High in Columbia, during measurements taken last November. At Freetown at Quarterstaff roads nearly one-third of vehicles were going at least 12 mph over the limit.

School system spokeswoman Patti Caplan said parents whose children attend one of three schools along Centennial Lane are also upset about speeding on that crowded artery between Columbia and Ellicott City.

Republican County Councilman Greg Fox said he would likely oppose the cameras in Howard, if a bill ever reaches the council.

"It's a regressive tax," he said, because the fine applies to both rich and poor who speed. "There are privacy concerns and there's the slippery slope of what's to come," he added, alluding to possible expansions of the law.

The police can post officers with radar at schools that have a problem, and rotate the radar crews when needed, Fox said. "My inclination is I would not be supporting it."

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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