When it comes to enforcing speeding laws, city police have a new “eye in the sky” — make that multiple sets of eyes.
Thanks to financial support from the group Friends of the Mount Airy Police Department, two pieces of equipment recently have been purchased for that purpose, a Stattrak Data Collector and a Speed Alert 18 Radar/Message Board, which cost $8,000.
That pairing represents technology’s latest response to monitoring — and then attempting to adjust — drivers’ habits on streets where speeding is deemed to be a problem, based on data collected over a period of time.
But before anyone voices the oft-repeated complaint that “Big Brother is watching,” police Capt. Alan Freeman said Wednesday the new equipment — deployed in June — is not aimed at recording information so individual drivers can be cited for speeding.
Horror stories regarding red light and other cameras have circulated from surveillance efforts in other communities. Yet Freeman assured that Mount Airy simply is mounting a multi-pronged approach for getting motorists to slow down on their own, with tickets to be issued only as a last resort.
How it works
The process begins when an apparent speeding problem is noted in a certain area, which can stem from complaints by residents.
“If we have an issue on a particular street with speeding, we want to get covert data to see if there is a problem,” Freeman said of an initial step to confirm this is occurring.
That is where the Stattrak Data Collector comes into play, a sophisticated piece of circuitry within a metal housing that is about the size of a square Kleenex box.
“We mount it on a pole,” Freeman explained, with the idea being to place the device clandestinely — which is essential to getting solid information.
If a police car or officer is positioned on a street to monitor speeding instead, drivers will notice and slow down and a true picture of their behavior will not result. “It’s kind of skewed,” he said of figures obtained by that method.
“We’ve put this out on several streets,” Freeman said of the Stattrak Data Collector, mentioning Welch Street, Bluff Street and Marion Street as examples, with more to come.
A common denominator seems to be routes often used as cut-throughs by drivers to avoid major roadways for some reason, but often these are residential neighborhoods where children might be playing.
The camera within the Stattrak Data Collector records information on vehicles approaching from one direction, which over time gives police a profile. “It tells us how many vehicles were speeding,” Freeman said. “And it gives us accurate results.”
For example, the monitoring effort confirmed a problem on Marion Street, located off West Lebanon Street. Marion Street has a posted speed limit of 25 mph.
However, the data collector found that four vehicles ran 20 or more mph over that limit within a seven-day period, when 488 vehicles approached the camera in all on Marion Street. Another four were clocked at speeds of up to 19 miles over the limit.
Such data is preserved and used to generate printed reports back at police headquarters which are then evaluated. Eventually, Freeman hopes real-time speed data can be posted on a website where it can be monitored by citizens.
With the results indicating dangerous speeding patterns on Marion Street, that triggered the next step in the process — the Speed Alert 18 Radar/Message Board.
“It is an actual radar screen,” Freeman said of the kind of equipment local motorists likely have encountered before.
Similar to the Stattrak Data Collector, it records speeds of vehicles from one direction and displays these in bright lights for the drivers to see.
“It is a second step to gain compliance,” Freeman said.
In addition to flashing a vehicle’s speed, the message board can admonish those who are exceeding the posted limit by certain levels with warnings such as “slow down” or “too fast.”
Freeman said that after the radar screen has been deployed in an area, police might follow up with another use of the Stattrak Data Collector to see if the speed/message postings have made a difference in reducing violations.
If drivers haven’t heeded the warnings, officers will begin writing warning tickets and real tickets, but wouldn’t rely solely on the data previously captured by the electronic devices. As far as evidence in court, “we wouldn’t use that alone,” Freeman said.
The police captain said the new equipment provides labor- and money-saving benefits considering the manpower that would be required to accomplish what the devices do.
He added that the same technology is heavily used in Florida and has proven successful there and also is employed by the N.C. Department of Transportation.
Its functionality is appreciated by residents of neighborhoods where speeding problems have occurred, including Carter Barnhardt, who remarked about the presence of the display board on Marion Street as he drove through on Wednesday.
“I love it,” Barnhardt said of the approach used by police to curtail speeding in that area.
“There’s a lot of kids,” he said.
Friends’ efforts praised
The addition of the Stattrak Data Collector and Speed Alert 18 Radar/Message Board was made possible through a financial contribution by Friends of the Mount Airy Police Department.
That group of local citizens, which was formed in 2011, holds various fund-raisers to help city police obtain equipment or meet other needs that might not be possible through normal budgetary channels.
It has supplied $50,000 to $60,000 for different items over the past five years, such as a rough-terrain vehicle, a dog (K-9 officer), an incinerator to destroy prescription medications and a special tactical vest for use in potentially violent narcotics and other operations.
“We appreciate their support,” Freeman said of the group. “They’ve been there for us…they are a godsend.”
“We’re excited to be able to do that,” Melanie Jones, an official of the group she was instrumental in launching in 2011, said of helping the police gain needed equipment.
But Jones was quick to point out that the public should be credited for this with its constant support of fund-raisers held by the organization — “the generosity of the community.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.