Drivers Catch On Fast When a Speed Camera Goes Up

Cameras perched near Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville monitor traffic in a zone where the speed limit is 25 mph.
Cameras perched near Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville monitor traffic in a zone where the speed limit is 25 mph. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
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By Michael S. Rosenwald
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The morning rush traffic is long gone. The afternoon stop-and-go stuff is just around the corner. It's 2:30 p.m. and the northern end of Wootton Parkway in Rockville is wide open for easy acceleration.

A red sport-utility vehicle barrels down a slight hill before Thomas S. Wootton High School, but the driver is apparently aware that a speed camera lies ahead. Suddenly, the SUV flashes its brake lights. Then, a white box truck with ladder on top: fast, faster -- brake lights. Now, a silver Honda Accord: fast, faster -- no brake lights. Say cheese.

Two years ago, when Camera #2091 was installed, there were about 75 Kodak moments a day in this spot. This Monday: 16. The sharp decline leaves little doubt that drivers slow down on this stretch of road, as they tend to most anywhere a speed camera is mounted. But important questions linger: How much revenue do cameras like this generate and where does it all go? Do drivers revert to form and floor it after gliding gently by the camera? Are roads safer because of speed cameras?

Starting Thursday, the questions will spread beyond Montgomery County roads, where cameras have operated since 2007, and across Maryland, as a new law allows cameras in school and work zones statewide. The story of one speed camera on Wootton Parkway offers some answers.

The first of Monday's 16 violations came at 9:17 a.m. (morning rush traffic was too congested to allow much speeding). That first zap in this 25 mph zone caught someone going 56 mph, the highest recorded speed of more than 2,800 vehicles that passed the camera that day. The bulk of the day's citations were for cars going 36 or 37 mph, the slowest you can go and still trigger the camera. No one was nabbed during the afternoon commute, either. The first violation recorded after evening rush came at 8:08 p.m.

The Wootton cameras -- one faces north, the other south -- were installed near the high school in September 2007. Police officials picked the spot with help from residents, who worried about drivers who failed to slow down as they traveled over the slight hills leading to this spot, coming off long stretches of road on which the speed limits are higher. In the late 1990s, a student was struck and killed while crossing the street. Rockville officials called this one of the city's worst speeding locations.

Up went the Gatsometers, the Dutch brand that dominates the speed camera industry. Named after founder Maurice Gatsonides, a famous race car driver who developed the first speed monitoring system more than 50 years ago to help himself improve his speeds around corners, the early Gatsometers were rudimentary -- cars ran over a wire, triggering a stopwatch that shut off after a second wire was tripped.

Today's Gatsometers combine radar and digital photography. That first month the Gatsometers were up on Wootton Parkway, 128,977 drivers passed through on the northbound side. About 2,200 of those drivers were going at least 11 mph over the speed limit, triggering $40 citations. But a couple of months later, even as the number of cars passing the camera remained relatively steady, the tally of citations began to drop dramatically.

In December, three months after installation: 1,678 citations. In January 2008: 1,463. By September 2008, the monthly citations count had dipped below 700. And three months ago, the camera caught 555 speeders. Drivers obviously got the memo.

The speed measurements also tell the story: Before the camera went up, the mean speed along that stretch was 27.4 mph. Now it's 23 mph, a 16 percent reduction. Drivers are so aware of the camera that they are moving at speeds below the posted limit. "That's much more than we expected," said Rockville police Capt. Robert Rappoport.

The northbound camera's 23,881 Kodak moments have generated $567,173 for the city to spend on traffic safety programs and $388,066 for Affiliated Computer Services, a Dallas business services conglomerate that installed and operates Rockville's cameras. Xerox this week agreed to buy ACS for $6.4 billion. ACS officials said they would benefit from Xerox's expertise in digital text recognition software. Tickets generated from the Wootton camera are now processed by hand, with hundreds of eyeballs reading the citations at an ACS facility in Burtonsville. Lowering the cost of processing tickets is important for ACS, since, as the Wootton experience demonstrates, the longer a camera is in operation, the fewer citations it generates.

Police officials frequently cite shrinking revenue as proof that they are in the speed camera business for safety, not dollars. "If revenues go down, that shows our success," Rappoport said. But traffic safety experts -- and even Rappoport -- question whether that success extends beyond the immediate patch of road where the cameras are posted.

Claire Corbett, a professor at Brunel University in London who studies Europe's ubiquitous speed cameras, breaks drivers into four categories: Conformers always comply with speed limits. (Nice bunch.) The deterred slow down because of the cameras. (Crafty cats.) The defiers don't care about speed cameras at all. (In Rockville, some defiers have been photographed flashing their middle fingers or bare rear ends.) Finally, the manipulators speed up right after passing the camera zone. (This reporter.) Corbett said about one-third of the thousands of drivers she has studied in Europe are manipulators.

Rappoport acknowledges that manipulators exist in Rockville, too: "They do do that, I'm sure. Significantly? I think, in some cases, they do." Speeds in areas monitored by cameras are down 12 percent since the program's inception, Rappoport said, but there are no comparable statistics covering the city's unwatched streets.

Claudine Rubin said she thinks reducing speed is a lot more complicated than simply putting up cameras. She should know. She has been nabbed several times by the Wootton cameras -- proving that it's not exactly once bitten, twice shy with some drivers when it comes to speed cameras. Factor in the natural acceleration of traveling downhill. Factor in being late. Factor in kids jabbering in the back seat. Factor in life.

"I guess the cameras don't lie," said Rubin. "I was speeding. I did it. You don't pay attention for one second, you are talking to your kids or something, you're driving along, and then, there you go, you've got a ticket. I do try not to speed. I really do. I'm not a fast driver. But it's hard. Everyone has somewhere to be."

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