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CHARLACK • Drive too fast on Interstate 170, and you may wind up with an unwelcome surprise in the mail.

The small town of Charlack — population 1,431 — is believed to be the first in Missouri to deploy a speed camera on an interstate highway. Two other St. Louis County municipalities have speed cameras, but those are used to nab speeders on local streets.

Photo enforcement on I-170 began last week.

"The goal is to try to get people to slow down," said Charlack Mayor Jim Beekman. "We want people to be aware that this highway is dangerous."

But St. Louis County Police Chief Tim Fitch has criticized Charlack's use of a speed camera on I-170, saying the state should decide where to put speed cameras for public safety reasons and that the cameras should be regulated. Fitch said Monday that his position has not changed.

His office has received "dozens and dozens" of phone calls since signs went up warning northbound motorists of the photo enforcement in the quarter-mile stretch that lies within Charlack.

The portable camera is on the bridge carrying Lackland Road over a stretch of highway where the posted speed limit is 60 mph. Enforcement will alternate between northbound and southbound lanes, Beekman said.

The Missouri Department of Transportation, which owns and operates the Lackland bridge, never authorized the camera's use on its right of way. But Tom Blair, assistant district engineer for MoDOT, said the agency has determined it can't bar a speed camera if there is a staffed police vehicle next to it.

On Monday evening, a manned truck was next to the Lackland camera.

Blair added that MoDOT has worked with Charlack by granting permission for the warning signs along I-170 so motorists aren't "blindsided" by the photo enforcement.

Beekman and Charlack Police Chief Tony Umbertino have defended the need for cameras to improve public safety. Beekman said the stretch of highway in his city has had a significant share of accidents. Charlack police say the curve on the northbound lanes in Charlack make the road dangerous.

Earlier this year, MoDOT reported 61 accidents over a five-year period on Charlack's segment of I-170; none was fatal. The number was about two crashes more than the average, MoDOT officials said.

Speed cameras are similar to red-light cameras. They take pictures of speeding vehicles and the license plate, but not the driver. The tickets carrying fines of $100 will be sent to the registered owners. No points are assessed against the owner's driving record for a violation.

Despite criticism that cameras are aimed at generating revenue, Beekman said Charlack passed a budget that did not count on camera fines. He said the ultimate goal is to phase out the photo program once motorists regularly drive more slowly through town.

Umbertino did not return a reporter's phone calls Monday. But he has said in the past that his department's goal is to reduce excessive speeding by 40 percent over a three-year period. The Board of Aldermen would then vote on whether to continue using speed cameras.

Further, he has said the camera will be used to catch "excessive" speeders who are traveling well over 70 mph.

Charlack, Beekman added, will give violators the opportunity to reduce their speed-camera fine by $25 if they are willing to attend traffic school.

But Fitch called the traffic school offer a "gimmick" because people won't take four hours out of their schedules to attend such a class.

State lawmakers this year considered limiting the use of speed cameras to school, work and construction zones, but did not pass any bills to do so.

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