By Luke Broadwater, The Baltimore Sun
8:57 PM EST, January 23, 2014
Driver advocacy group AAA Mid-Atlantic and some lawmakers urged local governments to conduct audits of their speed camera programs Thursday after learning that a secret audit last year of Baltimore's program documented far higher error rates than previously disclosed.
"We really don't know how widespread this problem is," said Ragina Averella, AAA Mid-Atlantic's manager of government affairs and a member of the city's speed camera task force. Averella said other jurisdictions across Maryland should "absolutely" audit their programs to check the accuracy of the $40 citations.
"If it's a significant issue in other jurisdictions, we simply don't know," Averella said.
The Baltimore Sun reported Wednesday that the city's speed cameras likely charged motorists for thousands more erroneous tickets than previously disclosed, according to data in a never-released audit conducted for the city last year.
Consultant URS Corp. evaluated the camera system as run by Xerox State and Local Solutions in 2012 and found an error rate of more than 10 percent — 40 times higher than city officials have claimed. The audit identified 13 cameras with double-digit error rates, including one at Loch Raven Boulevard with a 58 percent error rate.
The city camera system has been shut down since April, but some City Council members said the city should have revealed what the audit found and taken steps to issue refunds to all motorists who wrongly got citations.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's administration declined all day to answer questions, but issued a statement Thursday night playing down the audit's importance, calling it an "inconclusive report that does not reflect any final conclusions about the accuracy of the speed camera program."
"It is false to insinuate that the city sought to keep the public in the dark when we acted quickly to take the speed camera program offline due to errors," Kevin Harris, a mayoral spokesman, said in the statement.
City Councilman Carl Stokes called Thursday for an investigative hearing into the audit, which administration officials received in April and never disclosed. The administration continues to refuse to release the audit, a copy of which was obtained by The Sun. Stokes said he wants to place officials under oath and find out what they knew about the audit and when they knew it.
"The audit of the program was paid for by the citizens of Baltimore and the citizens should be able to view the audit's findings," Stokes said in a statement. "It took a whistle blower to leak [the report]. We want to see the entire audit."
City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said he was "disturbed" that The Sun obtained a copy of the audit while the administration has refused to provide it to him. He said he remains committed to relaunching a speed camera program in Baltimore, both for safety and to provide city revenue. "We just need to make sure that these tickets are actually correct and that the citizens have faith that we're doing the right thing."
For the audit, URS Corp. looked at a sample of nearly 1,000 tickets from a random day in 2012 at 37 of the city's 83 speed cameras. More than 10 percent were found to be in error.
The city issued roughly 700,000 speed camera tickets at $40 each in fiscal year 2012. If 10 percent were wrong, 70,000 would have wrongly been charged $2.8 million.
Throughout 2012, city officials repeatedly claimed the error rate of their 83 cameras was "less than a quarter of one percent" in response to a Sun investigation that documented erroneous speed readings at seven cameras.
The audit found that a camera in the 1000 block of Caton Ave. had a 35 percent error rate. A device at the 6500 block of Eastern Ave. had a 45 percent error rate. And a speed camera in the 5400 block of Loch Raven Blvd. had a 58 percent error rate.
Like AAA's Averella, some City Council members and a Baltimore County senator have said the audit's findings show other jurisdictions should audit their speed camera programs. More than 40 municipalities in Maryland, including cities and counties, use speed cameras, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
The State Highway Administration — which uses the cameras to monitor speed in its work zones — said it would speak with the drivers organization about the request. But Baltimore County and Howard County argued against auditing their systems.
"There is absolutely no indication that Baltimore County's speed cameras are inaccurate," said county spokeswoman Ellen Kobler. "Our Police Department calibrates every camera every day, and a small, highly trained staff of sworn officers carefully reviews each individual citation for accuracy."
Howard County's government argued Thursday that such an audit of its cameras is unnecessary.
"We have great confidence in the Howard County speed camera program, which is quite different from the one that was apparently audited in Baltimore, both in technology and police oversight," said Howard police spokeswoman Sherry Llewellyn. "We have had no indications of erroneous speed camera citations being sent in Howard County, so there has not been a need to plan for an outside audit of our program."
Llewellyn emphasized that Howard's speed cameras use laser technology, instead of the radar technology that was employed in Baltimore, to determine a driver's speed.
"Although we both have used the same vendor, Xerox, the technologies they have provided us share few similarities," Llewellyn said. "Invalid Xerox citations in Baltimore were specifically linked to radar, not laser, technology. Howard County uses laser only."
Fernando Berra III, a photonic engineer in private industry with 20 years of experience in laser and radar systems, said he agreed that laser cameras are more accurate than those using radar, but still can produce errors.
Berra, who testified before the General Assembly twice last year about speed camera legislation, said an audit of any speed camera system "would find similar errors."
"Any vehicle in the four lanes could be the one triggering the system," he said.
Xerox operated Baltimore's speed camera program from the fall of 2009 to 2012, when the city put the contract up for bid. The city selected Brekford Corp. of Anne Arundel County to take over the system in January of last year. Brekford's brief tenure was beset by problems; the city shut down their cameras in April and severed the contract with Brekford last month.
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