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Prince George's County moves toward speed cameras

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Although questions were raised about the reliability of Lanham-based Optotraffic's speed cameras at a public hearing this month, the company has been hired by Prince George's County officials to install and maintain speed cameras on county roads.

According to Optotraffic Senior Account Manager Mickey Shepherd, who defended the company's technology, county officials signed a contract with Optotraffic on July 18 to provide speed cameras on county roads.

"I'm told we have a one-year contract, with a three-year option to renew," Shepherd said.

In response to complaints about Optotraffic's equipment, Shepherd said: "Our technology, which was developed and patented in Maryland, is sophisticated and more precise with multi-lane capabilities. It's lane specific, so we issue more tickets and can get more accuracy."

In testimony before the council last week, county residents and a business owner complained about the accuracy of Optotraffic's cameras currently used in municipalities such as Cheverly, Glenarden, College Park and Forest Heights. District 1 County Council member Mary Lehman, who represents Laurel, said she was troubled by some of the evidence presented at the hearing regarding the company.

"I heard compelling stories with significant evidence, and I have concerns that they (Optotraffic) have problems with their cameras," said Lehman. "I can understand people's concerns. One guy said he was cited five times by the same camera even though his GPS tracking system said he was not speeding. He disputed it, and the judge threw it out."

But Police Department officials, spokespersons for the County Executive's Office and Shepherd have all said that Optotraffic's speed cameras passed all tests for accuracy locally and in other jurisdictions in the state. Lehman said she wants to make sure the equipment is regularly calibrated to avoid errors, which Shepherd said is done daily.

"We have an independent lab to calibrate our speed-camera equipment once a year, plus once daily, the lasers are calibrated off a GPS satellite system for accuracy and timing of the computer," Shepherd said. "The tests make allowances for sunlight and other weather conditions. If there are problems found, the cameras are shut down and no tickets are issued."

AAA weighs-in

County officials approved speed cameras in 2009, but former County Executive Jack Johnson put the program on hold when residents spoke out against them in large numbers.

County officials must abide by the state speed camera law that only permits cameras within a highway construction site or within a half-mile of a school zone. Those clocked by a camera going more than 12 miles over the speed limit will receive a $40 ticket in the mail. County officials have identified 55 sites for speed cameras and 58 more will be decided for future installations.

John Townsend, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, who testified at last week's hearing, was concerned that the county didn't do more research on speed-camera technology used in large jurisdictions, such as the District of Columbia, where more than $40 million was collected in speed camera fines last year, before it made a decision on Optotraffic.

"I don't think they know of the problems and complaints we've received (from members) about this company (Optotraffic)," Townsend said. "I don't trust their technology and we at AAA don't think it's the most reliable system out there. We haven't gotten any complaints about the speed cameras in Laurel and the programs in Montgomery County and Bowie are good."

Townsend also advised county officials to have more control over their program in terms of collecting payments for tickets.

"Optotraffic has people send their ticket payments to a post office box address in Philadelphia. The county needs to keep this in-house," he said. "This could turn into a hot mess, so they need to get it right now because we don't need any more scandals in the county."

But according to Shepherd, violators will have a choice of sending their payments to the electronic processing center in Philadelphia for the county's bank, PNC, or paying them at walk-in payment centers. Residents will also be able to pay over the phone, Shepherd said.

Citizen watchdogs

Lehman said she realizes that with any new program, there are bound to be kinks to work out, but that shouldn't stop the speed-camera initiative from moving forward and residents' concerns should not be ignored. She also said she is pleased that Montpelier Elementary School, in Laurel, is on the county's priority list for placement of the speed cameras.

"Montpelier is in the top 10, so it will get a speed camera by this fall on Muirkirk Road, which was a top concern of mine," Lehman said. "I've heard for years from citizens that speed has always been a problem due to the wide configuration of that road there, with no traffic signals or stop signs to force people to slow down," Lehman said.

Two Laurel elementary schools on Route 197, where speeding is said to be a problem, did not make the list.

"Deerfield and Oaklands did not make the list because they are on state roads, but (Route 197) is a chronic speed problem area with numerous lanes where people are always in a hurry to get to and from the Baltimore-Washington Parkway to get to work," Lehman said. "A lot of children walk to school there … and I do want consideration given to those schools because the state said that the county (with the state's approval) can do separate contracts for those roads."

The county established a citizen's Speed Camera Advisory Committee last week, with each council member naming two people to serve on it and the County Executive naming three committee members.

One of Lehman's appointments was Laurel City Engineer Bryon White.

"He's a civil engineer, a traffic expert and he'll bring a lot of expertise to the committee that will meet quarterly, independently, to review the speed camera program — what works, doesn't work, placement of the cameras and any problems," Lehman said.

White already has ideas about how he would like to see the speed camera program implemented. He feels the cameras should only be placed in school zones where there have been accidents, where speeding is a problem and where there are numerous cyclists and walkers in an area.

And because governments have been accused of using speed cameras as a revenue source to make up for their budget shortfalls, White said, "If the overall goal is public safety, then any revenue from the cameras should be dedicated to infrastructure improvements in the roadways. … Maintaining the integrity of the speed-camera system and reviewing policy is of the utmost importance if the speed cameras are to be accepted by the public at large."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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