Smiles, and frowns, for the speed cameras

Forest Heights installed speed cameras along Indian Head Highway in March. It now plans to add one on Livingston Road.
Forest Heights installed speed cameras along Indian Head Highway in March. It now plans to add one on Livingston Road. (Rachel Fus)
By Andrew Waite
The Gazette
Thursday, January 20, 2011

Almost a year after Forest Heights installed two speed cameras that drew the ire of some residents and business owners, the town is adding another camera.

This time, some community members are embracing the safety upgrades they say the cameras afford - although resistance has not vanished.

The town's new camera will sit on Livingston Road between Comanche Drive and Indian Head Highway, less than a mile from the first two, which are on Indian Head Highway/Route 210. It will go up in February or March, said Mayor Andrea McCutcheon. The town received the required approval for the new device from Prince George's County on Jan. 3.

The original cameras, which were installed in March, deliver a few hundred tickets per day and have generated more than $1 million in revenue, McCutcheon said.

Forest Heights is eligible to receive about $580,000 of that total, or 10 percent of the town's fiscal 2011 budget; the rest goes to the state, per Maryland law, McCutcheon said. The money the town receives from tickets can be used only for public safety expenditures in its budget, state law dictates.

When the first cameras went up, many residents complained, viewing the devices as a way for the town to make a quick buck. However, a year later, residents such as Lois Bynum, 63, say they have had a change of heart.

"I thought it was all for revenue," said Bynum. "I feel that it's needed for safety and protection. I noticed how the motorists were speeding and zooming by me, violating the speed limit."

Not everyone agrees.

"What they are doing is ridiculously wrong," said John McHale, who manages Eastover Auto Supply, on Indian Head Highway, near the cameras. "The town of Forest Heights, they are just thieves."

The devices record inaccurate speeds, said Will Foreman, who owns the store and has paid $400 in tickets since the cameras were installed. However, he has not successfully defeated a ticket in court.

The cameras used in Forest Heights are made by Optotraffic, a Lanham-based company and division of Sigma Space Corporation, a provider of instrumentation systems to the aerospace industry. Optotraffic's Mickey Shepherd says the company's devices accurately measure vehicle speed within .5 mph below speeds of 55 miles per hour.

Tom Hicks, director of the Maryland State Highway Administration's traffic and safety office, said Forest Heights met all setup requirements before installing the cameras, including establishing a half-mile school zone in the area.

"We are concerned if something is shown to be inaccurate," Hicks said. But the state has not investigated Foreman's claim and does not plan to, he added.

"We don't want to interfere with a local government's rights, privileges and responsibilities to public safety," Hicks said.

Because the new camera is on a county road within Forest Heights, it requires county, not state, approval. The county's requirements match the state's.

The maximum penalty a camera can impose is $40; violations do not add points to a driver's license. Drivers who exceed the speed limit by 12 mph or more are ticketed.

The cameras are solely about public safety, McCutcheon said.

"The traffic has slowed down so much from the camera on Indian Head Highway, so it's really working over there, and that's what we're happy about because of the kids that are crossing in that area," said McCutcheon, adding that the town continues to have a problem with speed on Livingston Road, where the new camera will be installed. That road's speed limit is 30 mph.

The Forest Heights Police Department was not able to provide motor vehicle crash statistics for the town's section of Indian Head Highway.

Theresa Merrifield, principal of Forest Heights Elementary School, which is less than a quarter-mile from Indian Head Highway, said the cameras have made things safer for the school's 250 students.

"As a population, we're always in a rush," Merrifield said. "Having the speed cameras to slow everyone down is definitely a benefit."

Before putting up the first camera on Indian Head Highway, Forest Heights conducted a $10,000 feasibility study and found that a majority of the 60,000 vehicles that travel daily along the section of the highway, which bisects the town, are traveling faster than the 35 mph speed limit, with at least 11 percent of drivers traveling faster than 20 mph over the limit, McCutcheon said.

McCutcheon said the town conducted a similar study at the Livingston Road location, but did not respond to repeated requests for details on the new study.

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