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Tests fail to identify cause of speed camera errors

Baltimore City's automated traffic enforcement contractor carried out 189 vehicle test runs past a camera on West Cold Spring Lane but could not determine the cause of erroneous speed readings there, the company said in a letter this week to the city Department of Transportation.

"Upon review of the test results, all speed readings were within the expected tolerance without anomalies," wrote Ryan Nicolas, regional manager for Xerox State and Local Solutions.

Xerox is now recommending "third-party validation testing" of the camera, Nicolas wrote, and advised the city to paint measured lines on the street so that speeds could be more easily determined with photographs.

The eastbound camera near the Polytechnic Institute-Western High School campus has generated inaccurate speeding tickets for months. Officials with the city and Xerox knew of problems with the camera in February, and in July a city transportation supervisor worried in an email that the situation could get "out of hands." Yet the camera remained on as it continued to churn out $40 citations.

The Baltimore Sun independently documented more than 10 erroneous tickets logged by that camera and one across the street as recently as Nov. 15. The two time-stamped photos on one citation from July claimed that a Honda Accord had effectively traveled back in time, an error the city did not address Friday in response to questions from The Sun.

Since Nov. 29, Xerox has not processed citations at either of the Cold Spring cameras or one in the 3800 block of Greenspring Ave., Nicolas said in the letter, dated Wednesday and addressed to Transportation Director Khalil Zaied. The city earlier said it was investigating the Greenspring camera.

A spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and transportation officials refused to give The Sun a copy of the letter. Its contents were first reported by WBAL-TV, which posted a copy on its website Friday.

Xerox also recommends retraining city police officers who must legally sign off on all speed camera tickets after initial reviews by Xerox staff. Nicolas said the training would focus on identifying "radar effects," a phenomenon the company has said caused excessive speed readings for trucks on Cold Spring.

The Sun recently published an investigation of the city's array of radar-equipped speed cameras, finding that some citations are inaccurate and that judges regularly dismiss tickets for a range of deficiencies. The city has 83 speed cameras, including eight portable units that are moved among dozens of locations. Baltimore has issued more than 1.6 million tickets since 2009, pulling in around $40 million in fines from motorists.

The Sun has documented erroneous speed readings from five city speed cameras — on Walther Avenue, Potee Street and University Parkway, along with the two on Cold Spring near Poly-Western.

City transportation spokeswoman Adrienne Barnes reissued a statement Friday saying that the city is continuing to work with Xerox to investigate possible errors.

Xerox spokesman Kevin Lightfoot said "it would be premature to speculate on our review before it is complete." The letter from Nicolas said Xerox has been auditing tickets from all 75 fixed-pole cameras and expected to complete that effort Friday. However, Lightfoot said further analysis would be required.

Larry Bradley is among the thousands of motorists who have received citations from the two cameras at Poly-Western. He was driving west July 25 when the camera clocked his Honda Accord going 72 mph as he was leaving his job in the city for his northern Baltimore County home.

Bradley said he didn't believe he was going that fast and notified the city he wanted to challenge the ticket in court. Recently, after hearing about faulty tickets, he took a closer look at his citation, hoping to use the two time-stamped photos to check the accuracy of the radar's speed reading.

For its own review of citations, The Sun has used pavement markings visible in the photos to measure the distance traveled by the vehicle, then checked the time stamps on the two photos to see how much time elapsed. Those two pieces of information yield the actual speed, which can then be compared to the recorded speed printed on the ticket.

"I went back to look at my ticket so I could measure and do the forensics," Bradley said Friday. That's when he saw that the second photo of his Accord bore a time stamp indicating it had been taken about two-hundredths of a second before the first photo.

That made it impossible for him to do the calculation. "There was no point," he said.

City officials did not respond to a question about Bradley's ticket. Nor did Xerox's Lightfoot.

According to the letter from Nicolas, Xerox and the city conducted joint tests of the camera in the 1300 block of West Cold Spring last Saturday night and into Sunday morning. Police shut down the road, and three vehicles were used: a Toyota sedan, a Ford minivan and a 16-foot U-Haul truck.

A city police officer aimed a hand-held laser gun as the vehicles were driven past the camera while trying to maintain speeds of 42 mph and 52 mph. In all, 189 test runs were completed, the letter said.

Although the city is not currently processing tickets from the three cameras, they "remain operational to allow for the collection of additional data," Nicolas wrote.

Starting next month, Baltimore is switching to a new speed camera contractor, Brekford Corp. of Hanover. The next meeting of a task forced appointed by Rawlings-Blake to explore speed cameras is scheduled for Dec. 14.

scalvert@baltsun.com

luke.broadwater@baltsun.com

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