Parents and students driving in Howard County school zones next week might want to keep smiles on their faces and a heavy foot off the gas pedal because somewhere out there a new police camera is waiting to capture them.

Armed with a new handheld camera mounted on a laser device, officers will rove the streets near the county's 70 schools, snapping photos of speeders that will be mailed to them with a warning notice.

The camera is a new facet of the annual effort by county police to raise traffic safety awareness during the first two weeks of school. "This is another tool for us to use in promoting awareness and getting people to obey speed limits in these school zones," said Howard County police Officer David Proulx. "For kids walking to and from schools, [speeding] poses a great threat."

The posted speed limit in school zones in Howard is 25 mph.

The new camera unit, which cost about $9,000 -- double the price of a traditional "speed gun" -- takes a digital photo and records the speed of cars that drive past it. That means officers don't have to chase down speeders.

Because the camera is being tested, no fines or points will be assessed. For now, embarrassment is the extent of the punishment.

More than two dozen officers will patrol zones around elementary, middle and high schools as part of an annual two-week program dubbed HASTE, for Helping Arriving Students Through Enforcement.

The state initiated HASTE as a two-year program in the late 1990s, said Howard police spokeswoman Sherry Llewellyn. The county had such good results, she said, that it continued the program on its own.

During the first two weeks of school, the program beefs up school zone patrol forces. On the first day of school, for example, 15 additional officers will be posted at elementary and middle schools during the half-hour before schools open and the half-hour after they close. Others will be assigned to assist officers who work year-round at the county's 12 high schools.

The idea, police say, is to remind motorists that school is back in session and that the rules they might have ignored over the summer are back in force.

As part of the program, officers in unmarked cars also plan to follow school buses, catching drivers who fail to stop when the bus does -- a violation that carries a $550 fine. Police will also check motorists for seat belt and car seat use, issuing a $25 ticket to offenders.

And, as always, police will be looking for speeders the old fashioned way, Proulx said.