- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Prince George’s County town of Cheverly sent a letter in July to speed-camera vendor Optotraffic, informing the company that one of its cameras had caught a bicycle going 57 mph — just 26 mph off the world record for a flat surface.

The obvious error, town officials wrote, was the latest in a pattern of inaccurate readings by the Optotraffic device, which had caught another bike going 38 mph and an “invisible vehicle” traveling 76 mph.

Cheverly parted ways with Optotraffic in August and has since hired a new company. However, Optotraffic continues to provide speed cameras for more than a dozen Prince George’s municipalities and for the county, despite continuing charges that its equipment is inaccurate and used more to make money than increase safety.

“We’ve heard traffic engineers and police officers really express concerns about the accuracy of the equipment,” AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman John Townsend said Tuesday. “It’s those kinds of questions that can undermine the entire program statewide.”

Optotraffic, based in Lanham, has controlled the lion’s share of camera contracts in Prince George’s since local governments began installing the devices in 2009. The company installs and operates the devices in school zones, leaves local governments in charge of processing the citations and typically receives about 40 percent of revenue from the $40 tickets.

Critics say the cameras register exaggerated speeds and are often placed to catch a high volume of drivers without necessarily improving pedestrian safety.

Some residents have successfully beaten tickets in court by using their citations, which include two photos of the vehicle taken 0.363 seconds apart, to measure the vehicle’s displacement and argue they were not actually speeding.

However, county judges have in recent months stopped accepting the defense.

Cheverly officials partnered with Optotraffic for about a year but had serious concerns about the cameras, according to town documents obtained by a source through the Freedom of Information Act and provided to The Washington Times.

Town Administrator David Warrington wrote in a series of letters to Optotraffic last spring and summer that the company’s equipment had not only exaggerated some vehicles’ speed, but often gave false speed readings for buses and trucks with ladder racks and sometimes photographed nonexistent vehicles.

He also complained that Optotraffic sometimes sent late notices to violators who had already paid their fines and failed to notify Maryland’s Motor Vehicle Administration of non-payment by violators — an act that town officials said deprived the town of possible revenue and put Optotraffic in breach of contract.

Mr. Warrington could not be reached Tuesday to authenticate the documents or provide comment.

Optotraffic spokesman Mickey Shepherd defended his company, saying its devices are reliable and that complaints by town personnel were simply a result of their “lack of understanding” of the equipment.

He said Optotraffic and the town reached a mutual agreement to part ways after the company effectively had reduced speeding to the point that its presence was no longer needed.

“We had no problems with the equipment from our point of view,” Mr. Shepherd said. “There was a problem that our standard procedure was not always followed by some of the town personnel involved.”

Despite criticism of Optotraffic, Prince George’s County officials said Tuesday that they are confident in their partnership with the company. The county launched its first Optotraffic-run cameras in September, and the devices generated more than $500,000 in citations in their first month.

County Police Maj. Robert Liberati, who was among the Prince George’s officials who chose the vendor this summer, said the county carefully vetted several vendors before choosing Optotraffic and, thus far, has had good experiences with the company.

He said officials toured vendors’ facilities and did their own testing with various vehicles at various speeds, which showed that Optotraffic’s devices compared well to those used by police.

“We’re obviously concerned when we hear about these kind of things, but we’ve taken the time to inspect these cameras,” Mr. Liberati said. “We just haven’t had any experiences thus far with Optotraffic that show their equipment is not reliable.”

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