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City under fire for speed camera calibration methods

An anti-speed-camera organization has taken aim at Laurel's speed camera program, claiming the city circumvented state requirements for independent calibration of the cameras.

In an article posted on its website earlier this month, the Maryland Drivers Alliance, which scrutinized Laurel's speed camera records, states that the city relied on the manufacturer of city speed cameras to certify the cameras, even though state law calls for certification by an independent laboratory.

"It's a very loose interpretation of the law to say they complied," said Ron Ely, who edits an anti-speed-camera blog called Stop Big Brother Maryland, and worked with the Maryland Drivers Alliance to obtain and scrutinize the Laurel records.

Ely warned that "if Laurel continues to play loosey-goosey with testing requirements, they could find themselves in the same position" as Baltimore. Earlier this year, Baltimore announced it will overhaul its entire speed camera system after the cameras were found to be flawed, issuing scores of erroneous tickets.

Laurel officials, however, said that while the manufacturer, Sensys Corp., indeed certified the speed cameras at the start of the program two years ago, it no longer does.

When the original agreement with Sensys expired, officials said, an independent company, Radar Lab of Maryland, took over the job.

"Nowhere in the law does it say that's not permissible," Laurel Police Chief Richard McLaughlin said. He said it "was not clearly specified" who had to issue the initial certification of calibration.

The speed camera law calls for an "annual calibration" of cameras by an independent source, but does not say when that calibration must be done, according to the Maryland Department of Legislative Services.

Radar Lab and PB Electronics, another independent police radar repair and certification company, now perform the annual re-certifications in Laurel, city spokesman Pete Piringer said. 

Controversy over cameras

Laurel began using speed cameras in January 2011, two years after state lawmakers passed a law allowing local jurisdictions to use the cameras in school zones as a deterrent to speeding. The city now has six cameras.

Officials in Laurel and other jurisdictions using cameras point to declines in speeding and accidents in school zones as proof that the cameras work.

Laurel, McLaughlin said, had no fatal accidents last year, and a drop in citations issued indicates that fewer people are speeding through school zones.

Nevertheless, speed cameras have proven to be controversial. Some organizations, such as the Maryland Drivers Alliance and AAA, argue that the cameras are not always reliable and say many local jurisdictions use the cameras chiefly as revenue generators.

This year's Maryland General Assembly is weighing proposals to address such concerns. One such proposal, for example, would better define school zones; another would establish oversight over jurisdictions to make sure they follow the law.

"Jurisdictions have been outrageous in how they use these cameras," said Lon Anderson, director of public and government relations for AAA Mid-Atlantic, a frequent critic of how local governments use speed cameras. "There are issues almost everywhere."

Anderson said he was not familiar with Laurel's program, but he said AAA is "very concerned" about how machines are calibrated. In some jurisdictions, he said, poorly calibrated machines have led to tickets being wrongly issued. In Cheverly, for example, a speed camera was getting readings of 60 mph on winding roads, which was virtually impossible, he said.

"The problem is, there are many ways to calibrate," Anderson said.

He added: "Our position is that speed cameras, when properly used, can be a useful tool to slow traffic down. But they become easily abused … used to fund municipal coffers."

Laurel officials said they've avoided using the cameras as cash cows.

Marty Flemion, the city's emergency services director, said money collected from speed camera citations is not budgeted for in the city's annual budget.

Piringer said that the amount of money collected from speeding citations issued in Laurel has declined dramatically, from about $90,000 in 2011 to about $36,000 in 2012. He said that decline, coupled with a decrease in accidents, suggests that the city's speed cameras are working as safety measures but not being used to generate income.

In addition, officials say the location of speed cameras is identified on the city's Web page and announced in news releases. At one location, Laurel High School, a sign displays a driver's speed before the driver passes the camera.

"I'm not concerned about the revenue being generated by the cameras," McLaughlin said. "I'm concerned about public safety and behavior modification."

McLaughlin said the city has received "very few" complaints from drivers about the speed cameras.

Still, dissatisfaction with speed cameras is not unheard of in Laurel. Two years ago, someone painted over the lens cover on a speed camera on Seventh Street, and letter-writers occasionally criticize the program.

"People are frustrated," argued Louis Wilen, of Olney, one of the leaders of the Maryland Drivers Alliance. He said Laurel's initial failure to independently certify its cameras "is typical of what many jurisdictions have done" but still unfortunate. "Those (manufacturers' certifications) are worthless."

He also said some local jurisdictions (although not Laurel) have not even responded to his organization's request for information, a disregard which heightens drivers' suspicions about speed cameras. 

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