Maryland's legislative auditors criticized the State Highway Administration for inadequate monitoring of its speed camera program in an audit report released Tuesday, saying the state began using the cameras without conducting sufficient tests to ensure they could accurately record a vehicle's speed.
The report also said the state used its mobile cameras to catch speeding motorists for nine months without having the devices independently calibrated to ensure they were functioning properly.
Acting Legislative Auditor Thomas J. Barnickel III said in a letter to lawmakers that the state "lacked adequate assurance" that its contractor, Xerox State and Local Solutions, reported all cases where the system's errors caused it to reject citations prior to being issued.
Highway administration officials defended their management of the speed cameras, which have generated more than a million speeding citations and yielded more than $34 million in fines. The state's cameras are limited to highway work zones, including several in the Baltimore region.
"The speed camera issues identified in the audit have been addressed," agency spokeswoman Lora Rakowski said Tuesday in a statement.
"SHA stands behind the integrity of the program and its effectiveness in increasing safety on the State's highways," Rakowski added. "The audit findings were not based on violations of Maryland statute or internal SHA policies."
Sen. James C. Rosapepe, co-chairman of the Legislature's Joint Audit Committee, said he thought auditors raised "very reasonable" points, adding that the highway agency had taken appropriate steps "to fix the problems they identified."
The release of the audit comes days after a Baltimore Sun investigation of Baltimore City's vast speed camera program found that citations issued to motorists can be inaccurate and the process unfair. The city continued to operate one camera months after learning it had issued an incorrect speed reading, and nearly 6,000 citations were deemed invalid by the city.
The city also contracts with Xerox, as do Baltimore, Howard and several other Maryland counties. In January the city will switch to a new contractor, Brekford Corp. of Anne Arundel County.
Auditors did not assess Xerox's performance. Company officials referred questions to SHA.
State highway officials told auditors their decisions were guided by a goal to issue valid citations, not a desire for revenue. They said the aim of automated speed enforcement is to slow traffic, improving safety for workers and motorists.
In their response to the audit, highway officials said "there is no evidence that any equipment failed the calibration requirements or that citations based on inaccurate equipment were issued." They also noted that while state law requires annual calibrations, it does not say when those checks must occur.
In addition, officials defended the use of laser-based technology not approved by the International Association of Chiefs of Police. They said the technology was new when the state switched to it from radar in 2010 and that the association had not kept its list of approved systems up to date.
During a pilot speed camera program from October 2009 through June 2010, auditors found, the state did not set benchmarks for the "reliability and readability" of the citations. Only 44 percent of detected violations led to $40 citations because more than half were "deemed unacceptable by SHA due to reliability and readability issues." That translated to a loss of $850,000 in potential revenue.
State officials say the performance of radar during the pilot spurred their decision to switch to a laser-based system, which they say is better suited for pinpointing speeders in multilane highway traffic.
Both during and after the pilot program, the state's contractor has been Xerox, formerly known as ACS State and Local Solutions. Before awarding a multiyear contract to Xerox, the state used a consulting firm to test the company's proposed equipment in an active highway work zone.
But the consulting firm deviated from testing instructions by performing fewer than half of the 40 required test runs, auditors found. Furthermore, the firm reported the results of just eight of those runs, and five of the eight weren't done using two independent radars, as planned.
"Nevertheless," auditors wrote, "the consulting firm stated that the observed results fell within acceptable standards, and SHA's technical evaluation team gave an overall 'good' ranking," the audit said, adding: "SHA could not provide a reasonable explanation or documentation regarding why the tests were considered sufficient."
Auditors took issue with state highway administrators for failing to develop procedures to verify that Xerox accurately reported when and why a citation could not be processed even though a camera had caught a car speeding by at least 12 mph over the limit.
Under the contract, Xerox must issue citations for at least 90 percent of speeding violations after any "uncontrollable events" — such as a speeding vehicle's license plate being obstructed by another vehicle — are discarded. Failure to meet that requirement would trigger a penalty of $40 for each citation needed to meet the 90 percent level.
"Without an independent review of the instances in which citations were not issued and were noted as the result of an uncontrollable event, there was a lack of assurance that the contractor met the 90 percent performance requirement," auditors wrote.
State highway officials said they and state police officials "periodically" reviewed those violations and raised questions and concerns with the contractor.
In addition, highway officials said the agency has set up formal contract monitoring procedures. Those will allow the agency to conduct an independent annual review.
The requirement had been 95 percent. But state officials lowered it to 90 percent in May 2010 while evaluating the Xerox bid. Auditors say SHA officials reported the rate was dropped because the contractor asserted "it was unable to meet the 95 percent legibility measure."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun