Meet Silver Spring's Would-Be 'Speed Demons'

By Robert Thomson
Sunday, August 17, 2008

Alittle after 4 p.m. June 25, Terence and Helga Brennan turned their sensible subcompact onto Wayne Avenue, heading for home in Silver Spring. Driving up the avenue, they passed a Montgomery County speed enforcement camera, which is supposed to capture images of drivers going more than 10 mph over the 30 mph speed limit. It took their picture.

Terence, 68, and Helga, 76, paid the $40 fine promptly after receiving the citation in the mail. Like many people, they felt it wasn't worth the hassle of contesting the ticket in district court. Like very few, they also thought the county needed the money.

But the Brennans had some questions about their encounter with high-tech law enforcement.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Do you know of any technical problems that might cause a speed camera to register the wrong speed? We were supposedly clocked at 100 mph in a 30 mph zone during rush hour on Wayne Avenue between Sligo Creek Parkway and Dale Drive.

The road is winding there, and the traffic light at Wayne and Dale, where we turn left, is just a short way ahead of the cameras. We and our neighbors, who know well that even 40 mph would be dangerous at this stretch, wonder how the camera could come up with such a reading.

This speed would be impossible on the Beltway at the best of times, and we have never in our life driven at this speed. An inquiry to the Automated Traffic Enforcement Unit in Rockville has not been answered.

Helga Brennan

Silver Spring

You read that right. According to an official Montgomery County document, Terence Conway Brennan chose 4:12:45 p.m. on June 25 to pilot his tiny Toyota Echo past a well-known speed camera like he was Kyle Busch approaching the checkered flag in No. 18.

Any machine can break. But before the camera citation was mailed to the Brennans, it was reviewed, certified and signed by a technician with Montgomery's Safe Speed Photo Radar program, just like thousands of other citations sent out since the state-approved pilot program began last year.

So who could say? Maybe if we had a video, rather than a snapshot, we would watch Mr. Brennan, with his bride of 40 years at his side, spin the slicks when the light turned green at Sligo Creek, aim his four-cylinder tin can up the grade, wind around the two big curves in time to hit the century mark after three-tenths of a mile, then, after a tenth more, decelerate in time to make the 90-degree turn at Dale Drive.

"Well, the last thing I remember, doc, I started to swerve . . ." No, as Jan and Dean warned us, you won't come back from Dead Man's Curve.

The notorious Brennans have been the talk of the neighborhood. "We're the Speed Demons," Helga said, with an impish smile.

But she added more firmly: "We don't speed."

Last month, these rebels with a cause mailed a letter to the county's Automated Traffic Enforcement Unit:

"This speed violation left us speechless," they wrote. "A hundred miles per hour during rush hour on Wayne? It never happened. Cannot have happened. Please check if your equipment malfunctioned and other people received similar notices for that day."

They received no reply.

"We fell down on this one," said Lt. Paul Starks, spokesman for the county police. When I asked police to look at the citation, the traffic unit quickly realized what had happened. The Brennans will get their $40 back. But here's the part the couple really cares about:

The traffic unit has checked the Wayne Avenue setup to make sure it's working correctly. And all citations issued there June 25 were reviewed. The Brennans' citation was the only mistake that slipped through, police concluded.

The error was human, Starks said. The reviewers failed to spot the red flag built into the system that is supposed to alert them to such problems.

The speed camera system is designed to catch its own mistakes. When a glitch occurs, the device warns the reviewers by citing a weird speed to get their attention, such as 0 mph or 100 mph. The Brennan's speed should have been the tip-off to toss the ticket, but it got through the review.

Capt. John Damskey, head of the traffic division, will figure out how to improve supervision so this doesn't recur. And police will review their mail procedures to make sure letters such as the Brennans' get answered.

Dr. Gridlock appears Thursday in the Extras and Sunday in the Metro section. You can send e-mails todrgridlock@washpost.com. Include your name, community and phone numbers. Some letters are published.

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