Police say speed camera program is working

Speed cameras have led to a decline in speeding and traffic accidents in school zones, according to Howard County Police, and Chief Bill McMahon is ready to call the program an early success

"Based on our research, we had a significant problem with speeding in school zones," McMahon said. "I think the initial results show speeds and accidents have decreased, so we are very pleased with it. The results are showing the program is effective."

According to the report issued by police, the program, which has issued 25,836 citations from its inception in November 2011 through December 2012, has reduced speeds in 64.8 percent of the 131 school zones surveyed by at least 11 mph.

McMahon said the speed surveys were conducted when the department's two speed camera vans, which are used to gather citations, were not deployed.

The report, released last week, also noted a reduction in collisions in school zones from 166 per year in the past five years to 136 in 2012.

The department employs four technicians who operate two vans between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m., Monday through Friday. McMahon said the technicians, who sit in the van to monitor the citations, work one eight-hour shift per day.

The Centennial Lane zone, a mile corridor that includes Centennial High, Burleigh Manor Middle and Centennial Elementary, recorded the highest number of citations — 4,378. The Long Reach High zone (Tamar Drive and Old Dobbin Road) had 3,695 citations and the Hollifield Station Elementary zone (Rogers Avenue) was third with 2,937.

The report also lists the five locations where the fastest speed violations were recorded. The report cites three instances where a vehicle exceeded 70 miles per hour, including 74 on Centennial Lane, 78 on Rogers Avenue and 82 on Frederick Road (Manor Woods Elementary School).

The program also netted approximately $28,000 in revenue by the end of 2012.

Between October 2011 and July 2012, the program's operation costs exceeded its revenue by $32,000 on revenue of $489,462, which McMahon attributed to start-up costs.

Between July and December of last year, the program collected $404,665 in citation fees and turned a net profit of $60,000.

McMahon said the department has not decided how to spend the money, which has to be used for traffic safety projects. At one time, the department had planned to use the revenue for things like traffic crossing and sidewalk improvements and better lighting.

However, because the revenue collected is relatively small, those improvements are not imminent.

"The money we've collected wouldn't pay for a very long sidewalk," McMahon said.

Of the 25,836 citations issued from November 2011 through December 2012, 39 cases went to court. Third-six were found guilty and three were found not guility.

Program could expand

Under "program recommendations," the report stated the department is exploring increasing the system by adding two portable computer units, or PCUs, to be used in areas not suitable for the speed camera vans.

The portable battery-powered PCUs, which would be installed on to permanent concrete pads, would rotate between locations where the van is too large to fit.

"We like the flexibility (adding PCUs) provides," McMahon said. "The vans are limiting with their size. We don't want to put them on a roadway where they would block sight lines. The thought is these smaller units would be the answer to some of those roadways."

McMahon said the department still is exploring possible sites for the PCUs, but mentioned Mt. Hebron High School, specifically the intersection of Route 99 and St. Johns Lane, and Atholton High School on Freetown Road, as two of the approximately 12 to 16 sites where PCUs would be used.

The department, which is limited by law to using a maximum of eight speed camera systems at one time, is not actively exploring more vans, McMahon said.

However, McMahon is not ruling out the possibility.

"In the future, if that's something we see as necessary, we have that capability," McMahon said.

Staying within the law

While speed camera programs in Baltimore city and Baltimore County have been scrutinized because of an improper "pay per citation" relationship between vendors and police departments, those issues are not present in Howard, according to McMahon.

"I can personally assure you the problems faced in other programs do not exist in Howard County, as our program uses different technology and processing methods," McMahon wrote in the report.

According to law, the pay per citation model is illegal if the contractor operates the speed monitoring program on behalf of the local jurisdiction.

While Howard County does pay per citation, Xerox State & Local Solutions — Howard's contractor and the previous contractor for Baltimore city — has a "very limited role" in how the department operates its program.

"We are very confident we are compliance with the law," McMahon said.

The report states that Xerox has "no way" to control the profits or income, and that "in every sense, Howard County Police Department operates the program."

According to the report, Xerox is paid a flat fee for rental of equipment plus a fee per $40 citation. The vendor receives $9.65 per citation for the first 5,000 citations processed each calendar year, $8.88 for the second 5,000 processed and so on.The lowest Xerox will receive per citation is $5.95. At the start of a new calendar year, the rate resets back to $9.65 per citation.

In addition, McMahon said the department does not face the same issues as Baltimore city when it comes to the issuance of incorrect citations.

According to the report, many of the city's issues, including one incident where a ticket was issued to a stopped car, were caused by "radar effects" such as reflection, refraction and absorption.

Since Howard uses laser technology, those issues do not arise, according to the report.

The report also addresses the controversy surrounding the camera's time stamped photographs. Howard's speed camera program has been criticized in the Baltimore Sun's speed camera coverage for not placing fractions of a second on the pair of time stamped photos issued to violators.

Those fractions of a second, while not required by the law, aid in verifying the speed at which the vehicle was traveling, according to the Sun.

The report states that the laser technology does not allow for fractions of a second to be displayed, and that the department's current time stamps are compliant with the law.

The department also argues that using the time stamped photos to calculate the speed of a vehicle, which has been used extensively in the Sun's coverage, is an inaccurate process in Howard.

According to the report, the angle of the camera and other factors make it impossible for motorists to conduct their own accurate calculations.

However, the department is working with Xerox on the feasibility of changing the laser software in "to ensure legislators and the public that their confidence in our program is a top priority."

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