New speed cameras help drivers avoid tickets

The digital speed display on top of the speed camera on Montgomery Street in Laurel gives drivers a warning to slow down. (Photo courtesy Laurel City Police)

LAUREL, Md. — New speed cameras recently unveiled in Laurel are being called a prototype — they tell drivers how fast they’re going before they reach the camera.

The cameras on Montgomery Street in Laurel have digital speed displays mounted to a pole on top of each speed camera, and they look similar to displays on the road or on highways. Both cameras are near schools on the neighborhood road.

Drivers can see their speed and slow down before they reach the camera to avoid getting a $40 speed camera ticket. If a driver is going over the limit, the digital display will blink or flash to alert the driver.

“It’s just to slow people down, to make them aware that they’re exceeding the posted speed limit,” Police Chief Rich McLaughlin says. “Today we’re distracted on so many levels; it’s just a wake-up call, saying, ‘slow down. Be aware of your surroundings and obey the speed limit.'”

The new speed cameras went up last week, and already police have seen an effect.

McLaughlin says one driver on Montgomery Street was going 39 mph in a 25 mph zone, saw the digital display, hit the brakes and slowed to 25 before the camera. The driver didn’t get a ticket, which McLaughlin says is OK with him — he says it’s about safety, not the $40 citation.

“It has immediately had an impact. You can see people as they’re coming up the hill; you can start to see them brake; you can see them slowing down. It obviously caught their attention. It made them aware of how fast they’re going,” McLaughlin says.

Laurel Mayor Craig Moe and the City Council approved the expenditure, even though the digital speed displays meant fewer people would get tickets.

“You’ve got to be daydreaming if you’re behind the wheel and don’t notice these new signs that are on Montgomery Street. You can’t miss them. We give you plenty of time to slow down,” says Moe.

A AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman says he agrees the cameras are a smart move that proves the authorities’ priority is safety and not revenue. The agency says it shows Laurel implements speed cameras correctly, unlike small towns such as Morningside or Fairmount Heights.

“Many automated speed camera programs have been marred by controversy and suspicions of abuse,” says John Townsend, AAA Mid-Atlantic manager of government and public affairs. “We commend the City of Laurel and its police department in establishing a best practice and for striving for greater transparency in its automated speed camera program and for being the predecessor in setting the standard for other jurisdictions to follow.

“It proves that such programs can be safety-focused and not revenue-focused, which is critical to the integrity of automated enforcement systems. When operated properly, we have seen that speed cameras can change motorist behavior, decrease speeds and reduce traffic fatalities,” he says.

This isn’t the first time Laurel has taken measures to make it clear that their speed camera program is about safety. Last April, the city spent thousands of dollars to purchase decoy speed camera boxes with no cameras inside. The empty boxes generate no tickets or revenue, but slow drivers down.

Over the last three years, Laurel has also seen a drop in the number of speed camera tickets it has issued, and seen revenue drop from $2.5 million to $1.5 million.

While some towns in Maryland would consider this a big hit to the budget, Laurel officials consider the drop a good thing: Laurel does not combine speed camera revenue into their overall city budget.

“It is good to see the numbers going down,” Moe says. “It is good to see the tickets going down. But most importantly, it’s nice to hear the comments of people saying they’re seeing cars slow down.”

They also consider transparency and openness with the public important to their program.

“It’s attention-getting,” says McLaughlin. “This is a new concept — this leads to the transparency of the program. I’m concerned about pedestrian safety, our children, our bicyclists. The warm weather is coming, so this is the right time to launch these speed displays. It’s going to be eye-catching, and if it saves a life, it’s worth every penny.”

Two of the displays are already in place, along with older models near Laurel High School. McLaughlin says he’ll get some community feedback, then hopes to expand the speed displays to other school zone cameras in the coming months.

The city says Brekford played an important role in the venture. Brekford has been connected to problems with speed cameras in Morningside, Fairmount Heights and Baltimore, but Laurel officials believe the vendor has done an excellent job for them over the last several years. Other towns, such as Hagerstown, also have given Brekford positive reviews for their performance.

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