Prince George’s County, Md., continues to crack down on reckless drivers. After generating almost $7.8 million from citations issued through a portable speed camera program, the County Police Department is now planning to install up to 75 red light cameras in 2013.
The technology expansion also includes 20 school bus cameras to monitor cars that illegally pass buses picking up or dropping off students and 20 license plate readers for use at permanent locations. County Police Maj. Robert Liberati, commander of the department’s Forensic Services Division, said he anticipates contracting for the equipment early next year.
Since the county spans approximately 500 square miles and shares roadways with Washington, D.C., Liberati said the traffic cameras and other monitoring devices are critical from both a public safety and homeland security perspective. But it was the success of the portable speed camera program that convinced the department to look into other types of observation technology.
In just over a year, 463,321 speed violations have been processed because of the speed cameras, leading to a significant reduction in fatalities, according to Liberati. He said that Prince George’s County got into the speed camera business “pretty late,” but the delay has been helpful.
Liberati explained that he’s observed other jurisdictions that have installed permanent cameras and then experience a 90 percent drop in the number of violations after the first couple of months.
On one hand, Liberati said that’s a positive because it means the speeding problem is solved and the area is safer. But from a financial perspective, all the money spent on the camera infrastructure is now cemented to that one area, while other areas in the jurisdiction without cameras may continue to have speed problems.
So Prince George’s County decided to go the portable route with its own speed camera system.
The portable speed cameras are two-wheeled trailers that police rotate through various speed zones located around more than 300 public schools in the county. The police department has 72 of the trailers, which are provided by Optotraffic, a local company in Lanham, Md.
Here’s how they work: Once the camera is positioned in a school zone, it uses two lasers to capture a reading. The first laser notates when a car enters the area and records a time and distance stamp. The second laser does the same and then the system measures the time it took you to travel between the lasers. The system transmits the photos and readings wirelessly.
The vendor provides all of the equipment and reviews the citations that the system generates. The citation is sent to the police department for a final check and then sent back to Optotraffic, which mails it to the violator. Under the contract with the county, Optotraffic gets 37 percent of all citation revenue that is generated.
Liberati has put the cameras at approximately 100 locations so far. But while one might assume the public would be frustrated by the presence of the cameras, Liberati said many residents have welcomed them as they encourage people to drive more cautiously. He added that some neighborhoods actually complained when they were moved, so a few locations have been repeated.
Maryland law requires the cameras to be in a school zone and only be operational Monday through Friday from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. But Liberati explained that since most people don’t know the law, the cameras have been a deterrent even on the weekends and the middle of the night.
“I’ll ride by the locations at 2 a.m. and see people slowing down,” Liberati said. “It’s having an effect because it’s behavior modification. Even if it’s not for the appropriate reason — they are thinking they should slow down because of the speed camera not because it’s a dangerous road — but nevertheless, it’s working.”
Not everyone is thrilled about the speed cameras, however. Some of the trailers have been vandalized over the past 13 months. Some have been spray painted, while others have been shot. The self-contained camera systems are hardy, however. Of the six incidents, only one was taken completely out of commission when someone set it ablaze and completely burned it.
Although the county police department doesn’t pay for the trailer system itself, each unit costs approximately $100,000 to replace.
To stop the vandalism, surveillance cameras have been attached to some of the speed camera systems. The additional camera sits on a large boom above the trailer and watches the area surrounding it up to about 12 feet.
The extra surveillance seems to be working. The last incident occurred on July 3 when one of the trailers was burned. Liberati said he’d like to get surveillance cameras on about 12 of the trailers.
“We’re trying to fine tune the method right now, the brand of camera we use and how it’s stored and transmitted,” Liberati said regarding the surveillance technology. “It certainly helps if people think they are being watched if they were to mess with the cameras. That’s certainly got peoples’ attention.”
Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.