Police Say Cameras Are Saving Lives

Photo | Phil Fabrizio A traffic camera at Education Boulevard enforces safe speed near Gaithersburg High School.

Photo | Phil Fabrizio
A traffic camera at Education Boulevard enforces safe speed near Gaithersburg High School.

Speed cameras might be annoying, but they have curtailed speeding and saved lives, according to Sgt. Scott Scarff of the Gaithersburg Police Department’s traffic unit.

Scarf recounted the origins and accomplishments of the Safe Speed Program on Nov. 6, a few days after the city’s latest speed camera location was approved on the southbound side of South Frederick Avenue at Education Boulevard.

Gaithersburg’s part of the program (which is run concurrently by Montgomery County outside of city limits) started in 2007 when the county and the state legislature first started investigating the use of speed cameras. Scarff noted that cameras had been used extensively in Europe, and eventually various U.S. jurisdictions imported the idea.

“We moved in conjunction with Montgomery County and Rockville,” Scarff said. “The idea began with red light cameras, and throughout the country there was an effort to see if cameras could be used for photo speed enforcement.”

After considerable research, the state green-lighted a pilot program in Montgomery County. When the pilot proved to be successful, the city of Gaithersburg presented the idea to the mayor and City Council, and they gave their blessing for speed cameras to be installed within city limits.

Currently the city manages two cameras mounted on mobile van units, two fixed cameras on South Frederick Ave., and five portable cameras. These serve 11 approved locations: South Frederick Avenue, Diamond Drive, Marquis Drive, North Summit Avenue, Quince Orchard Boulevard, Quince Orchard Road, Watkins Mill Road, West Deer Park Road, Christopher Avenue, Clopper Road and Girard Street. The up-front cost to the city is zero. The vendor, Xerox ACS, provides and maintains the units free of charge in exchange for a percentage of citation revenue, or $16.25 of every $40 fine.

Although both the city and Montgomery County manage speed cameras, the only overlap is on Quince Orchard Road, a busy street that can use stepped-up enforcement. Even there, the city and county cameras are located within the appropriate jurisdictions.

Placing speed cameras requires a lengthy investigation process. First, the city looks at factors such as community complaints about speed, the impact of traditional enforcement, and whether speed bumps or some other approach would be more appropriate.

Studies are then conducted to determine the 85th percentile speed at the proposed location. In order for speed cameras to be effective, the majority of vehicles in the area need to be traveling at least 12 mph above the posted speed limit.

Finally, the city looks at criteria such as the number, type and severity of collisions; surrounding uses like churches, schools and pedestrian walkways; and traffic volume.

If a camera is still deemed to be appropriate, all of these data are presented to an advisory committee composed of people representative of the community, who provide their opinion in the form of a non-binding vote. Finally, the city manager, mayor, and City Council have to sign off.

Although Scarff said the program has been instrumental in lowering speeds and reducing collisions, he understands that not everyone is enthusiastic about the cameras. Some people think they are mostly designed to generate revenue, and others consider them a violation of civil liberties.

“The revenue generation argument has been around throughout the history of law enforcement,” he said. “The police department has never looked at these cameras from a financial standpoint. The program from its beginning has always been about safety. Plus, money isn’t necessarily a bad thing.”

He said revenue from tickets is used to pay for the program, and any profits are funneled to public safety projects like sidewalk improvements.

As for civil liberties, Scarff sees little difference between a police officer standing on the side of the road with a radar gun and a standalone unit with a similar device. “It’s kind of an emotional issue for a lot of people,” he said. “I guess you feel better when you have a person you can argue with.”

He also noted that cameras, unlike police officers, are always on duty and can ticket every speeder. An individual officer can cite only about one in every 30.

“I like to believe the silent majority are in favor of the cameras,” he said. “Certainly most people in the neighborhoods that have them generally believe they’re a good thing.”