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City official says speed-camera radar 'not 100% accurate'

Public OfficialsXerox CorporationFrank MurphyStephanie Rawlings-BlakeAAA

City officials said Friday that they no longer have complete confidence in the accuracy of their speed cameras' radar systems and have instituted a new "reasonableness" test on two cameras known to have issued erroneous tickets.

"We now know we can't just rely on radar being 100 percent accurate," said Frank Murphy, the city's deputy transportation director for operations. "It is incumbent upon us as the operator to make sure what's being issued is accurate."

Murphy's comments came after a Baltimore Sun investigation showed that a series of vehicles received speed camera tickets at two cameras along Cold Spring Lane even though the cameras' own pictures proved the vehicles were traveling too slowly to warrant the tickets.

Murphy could not say whether the 81 other cameras located throughout the city were issuing erroneous tickets, but he said they "may" be, and that the government and its vendor planned a citywide audit to find out.

"We asked them, 'How do we know how widespread it is? Or, are we confident that it's not happening anywhere else?' " Murphy said of the city's speed camera vendor, Xerox State & Local Solutions. "Their response was they're going to go out and audit every location."

Each citation issued by the city's speed cameras includes two time-stamped photographs offered as evidence that the vehicle was exceeding the speed limit by at least 12 mph, the threshold for speed camera tickets under state law. Some cameras also record video. The Sun took several photographs that came with questionable tickets issued on Cold Spring Lane and, using clear markings on the pavement, measured the distance the vehicles traveled. With the time stamps on the two photos, it was clear the vehicles had not traveled fast enough to warrant a ticket.

Murphy said Xerox will begin performing a similar review process for each ticket issued by the Cold Spring Lane cameras, estimating the distance traveled by looking at the photos. Murphy also said city officials were looking closely at a third camera, on Greenspring Avenue, after citizen complaints.

"Now there's a reasonableness test," he said. "Does the video show movement of the vehicle that's in conformance with the speed or not? And if it's not, it's rejected. That way they won't issue any in which the speed doesn't jibe with what's shown in the picture.

"You look at the pictures. You may not know if they're going 31 to 32 [mph] but you can tell if they're going 30 or 60. So it's a reasonableness test. That's what they need to do."

Chris Gilligan, a spokesman for Xerox, directed questions to the city.

Murphy made his comments after a meeting Friday of a task force called by mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to look into the speed camera system. Task force member Ragina Averella, the manager of public and governmental affairs for driver-advocacy group AAA Mid-Atlantic, said she would like to see certain cameras shut down until the errors are fixed.

"We appreciate the fact there have been additional steps put in place," she said. "But even those additional steps aren't explaining to me why people are erroneously being cited. So, absent knowing why that is, why not shut it down until we get to the bottom of what the errors are and then put it back in place?"

At the meeting, Xerox manager Ryan Nicolas said the new "reasonableness" test doesn't "vary greatly" from the oversight already performed by the contractor, a unit of the office equipment company Xerox Corp.

"It's just an added level of scrutiny, intensified focus," he said.

Murphy said he didn't believe it necessary to shut down the cameras in question "because as long as we have this extra level of scrutiny and we're weeding out any erroneous citations, there shouldn't be any erroneous citations."

An investigation by The Baltimore Sun published in November found that the $40 citations issued to motorists can be inaccurate and the process unfair. The Sun's investigation found that the city continued to operate a camera on Cold Spring Lane months after learning it had issued an incorrect speed reading. The Sun also showed that city judges frequently toss out tickets for deficiencies and that the city has long ignored the state's narrow definition of a "school zone," in which most cameras are supposed to be placed.

Baltimore also has implemented what a top Maryland judge called a "bounty system," which pays Xerox a portion of each fine the speed cameras issue.

City Councilman Brandon Scott has called for an investigative hearing, and other elected officials have voiced concern about the speed camera program.

On Thursday, another top transportation official told The Sun that the agency would not seek to commission an outside party to determine how many citations issued by the speed camera network might be mistakes. Barbara Zektick, the agency's legislative affairs director, said in an email that the task force "may like to recommend that an independent party evaluate the error rate."

"But there is little sense in using taxpayer dollars to do so at this time when the department is transitioning from one vendor to another," she added.

Murphy, too, said he didn't consider it important to determine the speed camera network's error rate in Baltimore. A new vendor, Hanover-based Brekford Corp., will take over the cameras in January.

"I'm not really concerned what the error rate is; we just want to reduce it," he said. "Knowing whether or not anything is going wrong at any location — that's important."

At the task force meeting Friday, city officials handed out new statistics showing a sharp drop in speed camera tickets since July. Last June, the city issued its highest number of tickets since the program began: 86,000. Since July, the number of tickets has dropped sharply from about 25,000 tickets from fixed-pole cameras issued over a two-week span to about 8,300 during a two-week span this month. The city's eight portable cameras also issued fewer tickets, dropping from 18,000 during two weeks in July to a recent low of just more than 2,500 over two weeks this month, the data showed.

"This was, by and large, set up to be a good system," Averella said after the meeting. "That being said, when you know there are errors in place and nothing is being done to shut those cameras down, it really chips away at the integrity of the program. I don't think that's good for the system overall." She said she believed it "important" to know the city's error rate, and deemed the erroneous ticketing "troubling."

As the task force considered the errors, city schools police chief Toby Goodwin asked what the city can do to ensure that motorists are being accurately cited for violations.

Murphy said the answer would be "more clear" after the panel's next meeting, when Xerox is expected to discuss what it has learned about the cameras.

"What we need to hear is the results of the investigation [by Xerox] that's ongoing now about how do we catch them, how do we fix it, how do we make sure it doesn't happen," Murphy said.

The task force next meets Dec. 14.

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