Coming soon to a school near you: speed cameras.
Authorized by a County Council bill passed in May, Howard County police said this week they will start using mobile speed cameras to regulate speeding in school zones on Monday, Oct. 3.
After a 30-day warning period, drivers caught by the cameras speeding 12 mph or more over the speed limit will be issued citations bearing $40 fines. The cameras will be in operation on weekdays from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.
The law permits the county to place the cameras anywhere within a half-mile radius of a school, as long as the zones are clearly marked by signs. Traffic engineers from the county's Department of Public Works looked at all the school zones to decide if they needed to be altered for the speed camera program.
The engineers, along with representatives from the county Police Department, the school system's transportation division and the State Highway Administration, presented their speed camera school zone proposals at a public workshop Wednesday, Aug. 31 at the county's Dorsey Building in Ellicott City.
"There always was a school zone at every school," chief of traffic engineering Diane Schwarzman said. "The difference tonight is the length, beginning and ending points may have increased."
Residents had the opportunity to look at drawings showing the boundaries for each school zone and submit comments on what they liked, disliked and thought could be improved.
The drawings are also available on the county's website. Residents can e-mail comments to email@example.com until Sept. 9.
The county plans to start the program with two mobile cameras, moving them around as police see fit. The as-yet-unannounced locations of the speed cameras will be listed on the county's website.
The program will be run by six police employees, headed by Frederick von Briesen, a retired officer who will serve as the speed camera administrator. He said the speed camera equipment and back-office staff will be provided by ACS Inc., a Xerox company based in Dallas that provides business process and information technology services.
Some who attended this week's meeting expressed doubts about the program, among them two representatives from the Burleigh Manor Middle School student council.
Eighth-graders Pranav Ganapathy, the council president, and Shazabe Akhtar, the environmental affairs coordinator, said they are concerned about the students who walk to their school through neighborhoods with few sidewalks. Because the school zone where cameras will be placed near their school only spans Centennial Lane, they said it won't help the walkers who walk along other neighborhood roads.
In addition to suggesting the county expand their school zone, the pair said there should be more sidewalks in the area and buses to pick up students who walk nearly a mile to school.
Overall, they said, they are not sure how well the speed cameras will improve safety.
"They have red light cameras and people still run red lights," Shazabe said. He added that he would feel safer if a police officer was on the scene, running speed enforcement.
Ellicott City resident Chris Handy also had doubts about the program's potential to protect children.
"To me it's more about getting $40 out of people than really solving the problem," he said.
Handy's son is a first grader at Hollifield Station Elementary, where the majority of the H-shaped school zone is along Rogers Avenue, extending at the corner of the school along Patapsco Valley Drive to the other corner at Stonehouse Drive. He said the zone doesn't extend far enough down Stonehouse and into neighborhoods were kids walking to school would be most vulnerable.
"The only kids that ever go on Rogers are in school buses," Handy said. "They're not focusing on where kids would get hurt. … If they're going to (have speed cameras), I want them to do it right."
Handy also questioned how long the county will only be using two cameras. The law the council passed allows up to eight cameras.
Von Briesen said it would probably be at least a year before the county would consider adding more cameras, after evaluating program data.
"We don't foresee jumping that quickly into eight," von Briesen said.