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How One Small Town Slowed the Leadfoots Down

The Maryland community combined cost-effective technology and data analysis to get its speeding problem under better control.

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Betterton, Md., Mayor Don Sutton with his town's data-gathering radar speed sign.
(Town of Betterton)
With less than 400 year-round residents, my community of Betterton, Md., is a very small town. In fact, it's one of the smallest in Maryland. But like other small towns, it faces many of the same problems that larger cities face. This includes reconciling unlimited wants and needs with limited resources of money, staff and infrastructure.

Balancing disparities like these is especially critical when it comes to public safety and law enforcement. Because these are primary responsibilities for municipal governments, it is imperative that community leaders think creatively and identify ways to maximize budgets for these departments. In 2016, the challenge facing Betterton was a familiar one: drivers speeding through town. We found a surprising and cost-effective solution -- and one that illustrates how the use of data and analytics is not the province only of bigger, resource-rich cities.

Known as the Jewel of the Chesapeake, Betterton has only one main road in and one road out, and that road leads to a small but very popular beach area. The speed limit is 25 mph. About 60 percent of our residents are part-timers who own second homes here. They commute in for the weekends, holidays and summers. They want to get in quick and get out quicker. In doing so, drivers sometimes forget the rules of the road.

Like other similarly sized towns, our main road -- known as Main Street to locals -- is also a state highway. This means that while our community can voice preferences for how the road is managed, the state determines what restrictions can be used to control speeds, vehicle class or volume of traffic.

And as is common with small towns across America, Betterton does not have the budget for a local police force. We contract with our county sheriff's department, paying for intermittent, overtime services that include patrol, enforcement and more. So when residents complain about speeding drivers, we try to coordinate law enforcement services to address that need.

This brings me back to the traffic-calming challenges that come with having a significant number of commuter residents. Some years back, working with the state, a solution was adopted. This came in the form of a streetscape with stamped pavement at the entrance to town to remind drivers to slow down. It worked, but only for a short period. We needed something else, a solution that was both effective and acceptable to the state. We got that, and more, with a radar speed sign.

These driver-feedback signs are a familiar sight on streets and highways across America, but ours included something extra. The one we installed in November 2016, which cost about $3,500, came with software that captures data on driver speeds and documents the time of day that speeding occurs. For the first time we could use analytics to see when drivers were actually speeding. This allowed us to better coordinate law-enforcement services when we needed them most.

For the first week, the sign was activated in stealth mode: While it appeared to be off, the software was still working, capturing benchmarking data. It documented driver speeds as high as 60 mph! The data also corrected some inaccurate presumptions. For example, we had been operating under the assumption that drivers were speeding during rush hour, before and after work. In reality, most of the speeding was happening in the middle of the day.

These were mission-critical insights for us. By sending this data to the sheriff's department, they can better help us with speeding and we can better manage our limited law-enforcement funds.

Of course, radar speed signs cannot replace law-enforcement officers, but they can certainly do a fine job of augmenting their work. That's because the signs operate 24/7 with or without an officer present, which maximizes our investment.

Here in Betterton, we've seen another important benefit. Residents really like the radar speed sign. This is because most residents want to follow the rules of the road, and they appreciate that the sign gently reminds them to slow down. As of this September, the data showed no violations in excess of 59 mph and fewer violations overall. Small steps, but definitely steps in the right direction.

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