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Md. may try radar camera on speeding trucks


Meet the ideal traffic cop of the future -- no coffee breaks, no overtime, no paycheck, no blinking.

State police and highway safety officials are looking into using surveillance cameras equipped with radar as a kind of stealth enforcer on the highway beginning early next year. The project's goal: to slow down speeding 18-wheelers on one of Maryland's busiest and most dangerous thoroughfares, the Capital Beltway.

The portable device, called photo radar, would monitor traffic speed in a fixed location. A truck traveling too fast would have its image captured on film, along with an imprint of the date, time and speed. Its owner could then be contacted by mail.

If the system proves successful, state police and the State Highway Administration (SHA) would consider expanding the effort, possibly using it on Baltimore-area highways.

"The concept of taking pictures to catch violations is not new and it does work," said Maj. Raymond D. Cotton, commander of the state police automotive and commercial vehicle enforcement divisions.

"We may be able to detect a speeding car, but we have no way to pull it over because of sheer congestion. Photo radar could solve that problem."

The method has proved controversial. State officials studied using photo radar in the mid-1980s, but it was dropped because of privacy concerns -- the specter of a "Big Brother" style of law enforcement.

In fact, the General Assembly has not yet approved photo radar as a means to ticket speeders. The experiment with photo radar proposed by police and SHA would not involve conventional citations.

Instead, the owners of trucks caught speeding by a camera would likely be sent a warning letter. Repeated violations could result in an audit of a trucking company's safety records, Major Cotton said.

"It's very much a voluntary project," said Dennis R. Atkins, the SHA's assistant director of traffic and safety.

A safety audit is no small matter to a trucking company because safety violations can result in the suspension of a truck's registration. But trucking industry representatives have expressed varying degrees of support for the project.

"One of the biggest problems we have is that there is a perception of truck drivers speeding and tailgating," said Walter C. Thompson, executive director of the Maryland Motor Truck Association. "Anything we can do to show the public the industry is really safety conscious is good for the industry."

Rita Bontz, president of the Baltimore-based Independent Truckers and Drivers Association, said she also supports safer roads but has some misgivings about enforcement efforts directed only at trucks.

"Truckers may perceive this as discriminatory," Ms. Bontz said. "I hate to see something directed solely at one segment of the traffic."

While photo radar has become common in some European countries, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration lists only a half-dozen communities in California and Arizona that have tried it. There are drawbacks, the biggest of which may be identifying the driver from a video or still camera shot.

In Paradise Valley, an affluent suburb of Phoenix, a four-wheel-drive truck outfitted with photo radar takes pictures of both the front and back of any vehicle traveling 11 mph or more over the speed limit.

If the front-view photo reveals the driver -- which it does about 80 percent of the time -- the ticket is mailed to the registered owner.

"The owner is held responsible unless he can prove otherwise," said Lt. Ronald Warner of the 20-member Paradise Valley Police Department.

The community was the first in the nation to adopt photo radar eight years ago. The result has been an increase in speeding tickets -- from an average 300 to 1,500 monthly -- but a decrease in accidents -- 460 in 1986 to 274 last year.

"People initially complained that it wasn't fair, they couldn't argue with an officer to change his mind," Lieutenant Warner said. "It's amazing that more people don't use it."

Maryland officials said they believe privacy has become less of an issue as camera surveillance has become more common. They expect the one-year test to be financed by the Federal Highway Administration.

An SHA highway monitoring system using cameras and low-power radar tracking traffic speeds on major highways is set to begin operating this summer. That system is designed only to alert authorities to traffic jams, but its technology is similar to photo radar.

"Some day, sooner or later, these things are going to happen," said Major Cotton. "You're going to have violations that can't be enforced through traditional methods because of growing congestion."

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