Maryland catches red-light runners on photo system

Maryland catches red-light runners on photo system

By Claire E. House

GCN Staff

A photo violation system in Howard County, Md., is saying 'gotcha' to drivers who run red lights.

As of last month, the Howard County Police Department had issued 22,089 citations through the system since it went live in January 1998, county administrative analyst Jeanne Upchurch said.

Of those cited, 90.2 percent paid immediately, 2.9 percent paid after being found guilty in court and 0.3 percent were found innocent in court. The rest of the cases are pending or are held up for reasons such as change of address.

'We have a philosophy of community-oriented policing,' said Lt. Glenn Hansen, commander of the Police Department's Automated Enforcement Division. 'Things like homicide don't occur that frequently. What really occurs in our community is people speeding through neighborhoods and running red lights.'

Red-light violators cause an estimated 260,000 accidents in the United States every year, 750 of which are fatal, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. And red-light accidents are especially injurious because vehicles typically get hit on the side, which is not as resistant to impact as the front and back, Hansen said.

Because a red-light citation traditionally requires a police officer as a witness, states that want a photo citation system must enact legislation to allow it, said Jack Fleming, vice president of public safety for Electronic Data Systems Corp.'s integrated solutions division. The legislation stipulates that system-generated citations be classified as notices of liability, with no license points or notification of insurance companies.

In 1996, the Howard County Police Department ran a pilot system at two sites, with violators receiving only warnings, Hansen said. The pilot received good feedback'even from the violators'and the department took its case to the Maryland General Assembly, which in 1997 enacted a law allowing the technology in the state.

Return on investment

EDS developed and supports the department's red-light camera system, which pays for itself with revenue generated from each $75 citation charge. Law enforcement agencies throughout the state are free to buy similar systems through the Howard Police Department's contract, and three other police departments recently signed up to do so.

To quell accusations that the system is intended to generate revenue for the Police Department, the contract was set up to break even or deposit any profits into the county's general fund, Hansen said.

At each of 25 intersections around the county, there is a 10-foot-high camera-housing unit standing 35 feet back from the intersection. The department alternates 20 specialized 35-mm flash cameras among the units, but the public never knows which units are empty and which are live, EDS Howard County project manager Allen L. Pearson II said.

The EDS-county team experimented with digital cameras but found image quality to be poor, Fleming said.

Street sensors prompt photographs only when a light is red. The system takes two photographs of each possible red-light runner'one before the car enters the intersection and one as it is in the intersection. It stamps each photograph with a bar of data that includes date, speed, amber-light time and red-light time.

Once every business day, technicians empty the 800-image-capacity film rolls from the cameras, develop them and drop them off at the county center that houses system operations.

An EDS technician at the center uses an Autogate Controller from RedFlex Traffic Systems of South Melbourne, Australia, to feed the 100-foot film rolls into a Kodak PC Film Scanner 2000 from Eastman Kodak Co. The system initially stores images in a Sun Microsystems Sparcstation 2.

An EDS reviewer using the company's RPMs traffic violation software pulls up the pair of digitized photographs at a Dell OptiPlex PC with 64M of RAM and an 8G hard drive, running Microsoft Windows NT 4.0. The reviewer checks the photos for invalidators such as obstructed license plates, emergency vehicles, funeral processions or malfunctioning equipment, Pearson said.

Candid camera

If there is a problem, the reviewer throws out the violation. If the violation appears valid, the reviewer isolates and enlarges the license plate area, creating a third photograph to appear on the citation.

Using the plate number, the reviewer pulls up owner information from the state Motor Vehicle Administration through a separate, dedicated workstation. Eventually, the Police Department wants to access the MVA system directly through its WAN, Pearson said.

The reviewer then enters violator and photo data information into RPMs and moves on to the next set of photos.

'We have the ability to do optical character recognition, but you want to do it manually as a check,' Fleming said.

Because EDS is not authorized to issue tickets, a Howard County support technician pulls up the violation in RPMs for a final review, Pearson said. RPMs leaves the license plate field blank and prompts the technician to type it as he or she sees it in the photograph.

Not guilty

If the county technician doesn't see what the EDS technician saw, the violation is thrown out. About half of photographed incidents end up as citations, Pearson said.

If a citation is approved, the system prints it on a 600-dot-per-inch Xerox Corp. DocuPrint C55, and the department mails it to the violator.

RPMs data and images reside on separate Compaq ProLiant 6000 servers running Oracle7 Release 7.3 under NT. Backup data resides on a 5.2G Hewlett-Packard SureStore 5200EX optical storage drive.

If the violator is one of the 3.2 percent that request a court date, the county uses RPMs to track the case. One day a month, a judge hears all pending red-light system cases, Pearson said. EDS provides all case-related documents to the court.

Every day, the county checks the system for delinquent accounts, which RPMs flags, Pearson said. The system prints out a second citation after 75 days. It prints a final one after 105 days and sends violator information on tape to the MVA system that police officers access during license plate checks, Upchurch said.

Howard County has found that incident numbers tend to drop about 42 percent for a particular site and then level out, Pearson said. That number is consistent with results from other systems across the country and in Europe, where some governments have been using red-light systems for two decades.

The system is tough to foil. Some drivers put special prism screens over their plates, but the cameras still pick up the tag numbers, Pearson said.

Vandalism, though rare, also occurs. 'We had a camera get shot in New York City,' Fleming said. EDS finds out about camera damage within a day from the technicians who pick up the film, Fleming said.


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