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Portable speed monitors pop up

This week, three are near schools. To gauge the monitors' effectiveness, we observed the reactions of 50 drivers.

Like speedy feedback?

Motorists in St. Petersburg now have more chances to see their driving speeds flash before their eyes.

Mounted on moveable poles, three digital speed monitors are popping up around town, currently near schools. They might be on their way to your neighborhood, said Angelo Rao, city traffic manager.

"We affectionately call them our neighborhood speed watch signs," Rao said, noting that neighborhood association leaders could request a temporary installation.

The solar-powered monitors, 2{ feet square and $4,000 each, are in addition to the familiar cart-hauled monitor that police periodically position along busy roads.

None means you are about to be ticketed if you are pushing the limit. The monitors are there as an awareness ploy, the idea being that if you are speeding, you'll slow down when the numbers flash in your face.

"I'll admit, they've caught me as well," Rao said. "You start driving, you're in a 35 mile an hour zone, you're doing maybe 37, 38, you catch yourself.

"It's really meant for when our minds are going 100 miles per hour."

This week, the three are installed near 74th Street Elementary School on 38th Avenue N; Bay Point middle and elementary schools on 62nd Avenue S at 22nd Street; and John Sexton Elementary on 54th Avenue N near 20th Street.

One was installed for a few days last week on 38th Avenue N at 43rd Street, near Clearview Elementary. It seemed to affect traffic speed, observers said.

"At 7:30 in the morning, people were slowing down and there were no lights or anything," said community involvement assistant Sally Tietz, referring to the blinking lights that warn motorists of school zones when school is opening or closing.

Neighborhood Times last week monitored the monitor on 38th Avenue N, observing the reactions of 50 drivers after their speeds flashed up. This was in a 40 mph speed zone in the early afternoon, before school zone speed limits came into play.

The results:

+ Thirty-two drivers _ or 64 percent _ slowed at least somewhat, usually by just 2 or 3 mph. Of the 32, six drivers were going over 40 mph and slowed to within the limit.

+ Seven drivers were speeding _ usually in the 3 to 5 mph range _ and continued to break the limit as they passed the monitor.

+ One car flashed a 50 and its driver slowed to 37; on the other hand, a car flashed a 47 and its driver sped up to 60.

The monitors, like the digital safety messages also displayed on busy roads, are part of a campaign to reduce aggressive driving, which has been a theme of Rao's tenure as traffic manager.

The campaign took on extra meaning when the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety several years ago put St. Petersburg on a list of cities with the worst rate of red light crashes.

Rao, who would like to modify that reputation, still is interested in installing intersection cameras that would record a violator's license tag number. Warnings or tickets would be mailed to offenders.

There are issues to be resolved, perceived "big brother" activity among them. Moreover, mail-out citations would have to be okayed by the Legislature. Current state law requires a citation to be handed to the violator by the officer who saw the violation _ although there are exceptions.

Legislators are likely to take up the subject again in their 2001 session.

Rao cited 14 states where cameras are used, and said red light violations have been substantially reduced, as have other traffic violations.

"Knowing cameras are in place, people will change their compliance behavior," Rao said.