Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Who really wins when you beat a speed camera?

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Q: On a road where the posted speed limit changes, at what point may enforcement of the speed limit occur?

For example, when traveling west on Briggs Chaney Road in Silver Spring, the speed limit is 35 miles per hour until it changes to 30 miles per hour near Cloverly Elementary School just before New Hampshire Avenue.

However, approximately 50 feet beyond where speed cameras have been positioned is the sign that displays the new speed limit of 30 miles per hour. This sign is clearly visible as one approaches the speed cameras, but up to this point, the speed limit is posted as 35 miles per hour.

Can the speed limit be enforced a) where the speed limit sign becomes visible, or b) starting at the point where the speed limit sign is located?

Or more practically, what is the maximum speed one may proceed going west through this location without receiving a speed camera citation (40 or 45 miles per hour)?

Joe Leginus, Silver Spring

A: This is a seemingly simple question, yet it hints that you might be missing the bigger picture. But to give you the simple answer, enforcement begins at the posted sign.

Still, the object isn’t to determine how fast you can travel and still not be captured by the cameras and issued a citation.

Just about a year after Montgomery County implemented its speed camera program, the jury is still out among drivers about whether they like it or not. Fair enough. None of us want to receive a ticket for speeding.

But there’s more to it than citations.

‘‘If we had as many murders in the county as we have pedestrian, vehicular fatalities, there would be a hue and cry to the police department, ‘Why aren’t you doing something?’” said Capt. John Damskey, director of Montgomery County Police Special Operations, which oversees automated enforcement. ‘‘The program, I think, is having a substantial impact because it’s there 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.”

Some would argue it is better to receive a $40 citation with no points on your license if a camera catches you driving 10 miles per hour over the posted limit than to receive a $90 ticket and two points if a police officer stops you.

And others would argue it’s better to follow the posted speed limit, to ensure the safety of pedestrians in particular.

Speed cameras — 14 fixed camera locations and six mobile vans — became operational in Montgomery last March. There was a grace period of more than 30 days where drivers received warnings instead of tickets.

The cities of Rockville and Gaithersburg and the Town of Chevy Chase also have speed cameras.

In the time from March 2, 2007, to Dec. 31, 2007, the county issued 111,000 citations and collected $2.6 million.

And since last March, police say they have seen a decrease in speeding in the areas where speed cameras are located. An official study is under way. But just last month the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety issued evaluations of the effectiveness of speed camera enforcement in two areas of the country — Scottsdale, Ariz., and Montgomery County.

In Montgomery, the cameras are only used in residential areas and school zones where there is a posted speed limit of 35 miles per hour or lower.

Researchers with the institute measured speeds six months before and six months after camera enforcement began. They found that the number of vehicles traveling more than 10 miles per hour over the posted speed limit where cameras were in use dropped by 70 percent. Speeds in areas where there are signs warning of enforcement but no cameras had a 39 percent decline in speeding, according to the institute.

Damskey said the report is encouraging, and added that police will begin to use laser enforcement in the stretches just before and after the speed camera zone.

Last fall, as part of the county’s Street Smart campaign — a public awareness program aimed at changing unsafe driver and pedestrian behavior — police used a simulator to demonstrate how much stopping distance a vehicle needs at a given speed.

So, for example, a vehicle traveling at 25 miles per hour needs 86 feet to come to a complete stop, and a vehicle traveling 35 miles per hour needs 137 feet — almost half the length of a football field. The idea is that people driving faster will have less time to react, and therefore less chance to avoid hitting a pedestrian.

What the demonstration showed is that when pedestrians are struck by a vehicle traveling at 40 miles per hour, there is an 85 percent chance they will die. When pedestrians are struck by a vehicle traveling at 20 miles per hour, there is a 5 percent chance they will die.

‘‘A child can be killed by somebody driving 36 miles per hour. ... People can be injured,” said Lucille Baur, spokeswoman for Montgomery County Police. ‘‘The goal is to prevent the injuries, to prevent the deaths.”

‘‘I challenge any one of those drivers to go to the scene of an accident,” Damskey said of those who receive citations. ‘‘I will do everything in my power ... to ensure that I can improve [safety] on our roadways.”

The money collected from the speed camera program is used for traffic safety. Currently the program costs $3.5 million. As money becomes available through the program, it will be used for things such as overtime for officers to conduct speed and seatbelt enforcement, additional child safety seat inspections, and countdown signals for pedestrian crossings among other things.

Ultimately, the county hopes to have 30 fixed cameras. The county worked with the Insurance Institute to determine which roads should have the cameras. They use what’s called a ‘‘stealth pad” to record speeds on roads to figure out if there is a perceived speed problem or an actual one.

‘‘If we can at least create an area of safety for individuals ... walking to school, we feel like we’ve at least accomplished something,” Baur said.

You can find the locations of the fixed speed cameras, the mobile vans and the schedule for the mobile vans on the county police Web site, www.montgomerycountymd.gov⁄police, click on the Safe Speed icon.

You can also find locations of red light cameras. But that’s a topic for another time.

Bumper to Bumper, a biweekly column dedicated to answering your questions related to transportation issues, is compiled and written by Staff Writer JoAnn Grbach. For past columns, log on to www.gazette.net.

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