P.G. kicks off speed camera program

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Prince George’s County activated its first county-run speed cameras Monday, launching a program that will expand to 72 locations in the next year and likely bring in millions of dollars.

County officials hope the devices also will decrease speeding and increase safety near schools. They appear ready to embrace the technology, despite arguments from motorists and advocacy groups that camera-enforcement programs are little more than cash cows.

“The county feels that changing driving behavior to get them to slow down will ultimately save lives and that safety is paramount,” Prince George’s police spokesman Cpl. Evan Baxter said Monday.

The county debuted its cameras nearly two years after County Executive Jack B. Johnson scrapped a plan to install the devices, which he argued amounted to an unpopular tax on residents.

The devices detect and photograph vehicles exceeding the speed limit by 12 or more miles per hour, and violators are mailed $40 citations. State law requires the cameras to be operational only from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays.

The county’s first cameras — along both sides of Allentown Road in Fort Washington, within the required half-mile radius of two schools — were activated Monday as students returned for their first day of class. During a 30-day grace period, speeders will receive warnings rather than fines.

Violators will begin receiving fines Sept. 21, the same day that cameras will be activated at eight other sites with no grace periods.

Prince George’s will entrust its speed-monitoring system to Optotraffic, the Lanham-based company that has contracts with more than a dozen county municipalities and typically receives about 40 percent of ticket revenue from its clients.

The company and some of its clients have come under fire from residents, who have accused them of strategically placing the devices not where they will best promote pedestrian safety, but where they will generate the most money.

AAA Mid-Atlantic has questioned the accuracy of the devices and last week called on the county to remove an Optotraffic camera run by the city of College Park, which the group argued was placed outside a required half-mile radius from the University of Maryland campus.

“You’re talking about a proliferation of cameras,” group spokesman John Townsend said last month. “Hundreds of those devices that we have real concerns about the accuracy.”

Optotraffic has defended the accuracy and legality of its devices, even as some accused speeders have successfully argued in court that photos provided with their citations showed that they were not exceeding the speed limit.

The company has insisted that speeders are detected by laser sensors and that photographs are taken several car lengths afterward for identification purposes.

Maryland District Judge Gerard F. Devlin appears to be convinced that the cameras are accurate. On Friday, he issued guilty verdicts against two residents who argued that photo evidence showed they were not speeding. One of the residents, Oxon Hill business owner Will Foreman, had successfully challenged five tickets this year,but was found guilty Friday on all 15 tickets he challenged.

Judge Devlin accepted Optotraffic’s explanation of its process in a decision that company spokesman Mickey Shepherd said he expects other judges to repeat. Mr. Foreman said he plans to appeal.

“It’s a different technology from other companies, and they’re aware of how it works and they understand the system,” Mr. Shepherd said. “Broad accusations by people who don’t know what they are talking about are not facts.”

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