By Scott Calvert, The Baltimore Sun
11:19 PM EST, November 18, 2012
The vice chairman of the City Council's public safety committee called Sunday for a hearing on Baltimore's vast and lucrative speed camera program after an investigation by The Baltimore Sun found that the $40 citations issued to motorists can be inaccurate and the process unfair.
"I'm angry because we have to do better in the way we operate city government, especially when we're talking about things that are going to impact taxpayers," said Councilman Brandon Scott, adding that he thinks the cameras make roads safer for schoolchildren when properly managed.
Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, another speed camera supporter, voiced worries about the city's network of 83 cameras, which state law restricts to school zones. "I'm very concerned about the accuracy of the ticketing," she said.
Among The Sun's findings: The city continued to operate one camera months after learning it had issued an incorrect speed reading; city judges routinely toss out tickets for deficiencies; the city has long ignored the state's narrow definition of a "school zone"; nearly 6,000 tickets have been deemed invalid by the city; and citations don't inform motorists there may be video evidence that could exonerate them in court.
On Sunday, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's office declined to comment specifically on any of The Sun's findings. Instead, spokesman Ian Brennan issued a one-sentence statement saying a task force appointed by the mayor is "already convening to review virtually every issue raised in the article."
Brennan added that "we are confident that the Mayor's task force of transportation and safety experts will consider [any new findings] in its ongoing review to ensure the system is successful in reducing speeding [in] school zones."
One member of the task force, AAA Mid-Atlantic spokeswoman Ragina Averella, said she was unaware until recently that many of the speed cameras record video. The Sun reported that the snippets are played in court and sometimes cited by judges as grounds for dismissal. Many motorists find out only if they appeal a ticket, and Averella said the wording on the citations should be changed.
"As a matter of fairness and transparency, the motorists should know it exists, whether it benefits them or not," she said Sunday.
Averella criticized city transportation officials for failing to turn off a camera on West Cold Spring Lane after the city became aware that the device had incorrectly recorded a truck's speed. Officials learned of the problem in February, records show, yet the camera churned out thousands of tickets over the next several months and produced an inaccurate citation as recently as September, The Sun found.
"What's wrong with shutting it down and erring on the side of caution until you're able to figure out what the true problem is, rather than letting the camera continue to flash and cite motorists erroneously?" Averella said. "It simply doesn't make sense."
Scott said he would call for an investigative hearing during which council members could ask Department of Transportation officials about malfunctioning cameras and other issues with the city's speed camera program.
Early Sunday morning, the mayor's office announced that more than half of those caught by speed cameras in Baltimore during a recent 12-month period live outside the city.
Baltimore issued more than 680,000 citations in fiscal 2012, the mayor announced, and about 43 percent went to city motorists. About 6 percent were issued to out-of-state drivers. The tickets cite drivers who are recorded going at least 12 mph over the speed limit.
"This new data seems to indicate that motorists who do not live in the City of Baltimore are not getting the message to slow down on city streets located in schools zones," Rawlings-Blake said in a statement. "Pedestrian and traffic safety is a serious issue that we must confront, especially to protect students going to and from school."
Averella, whose organization represents motorists around the region, questioned the relevance of the figure, saying the city's goal should be to get drivers to slow down, regardless of where they live.
She said she thinks the reason so many suburban residents have received tickets in Baltimore is that the city has done a poor job marking the cameras with signs and puts many in areas not near schools. While state guidelines say cameras should be placed within 500 feet of a school, the city relies on a vague definition in state law that says a school zone is anywhere within a half-mile radius of a school.
In August, the city turned off five cameras that have produced about 110,000 tickets. City officials said they did so after AAA challenged the city for flouting another aspect of state guidelines restricting school zones to those serving kindergarten through 12th grade. The five now-dark cameras were put near colleges, across from hospitals with nursing students and close to church preschools, The Sun found.
Since 2009, automated cameras aimed at catching and fining speeders have mushroomed in Maryland, pumping out more than 2.5 million tickets in and around Baltimore and yielding more than $70 million in fines paid by motorists.
The state government and Baltimore and Howard counties all operate speed cameras in the area, but Baltimore City's program has expanded to become one of North America's largest, yielding more than $19 million in annual revenue.
While evidence is mixed on the cameras' impact on accident rates, city officials assert that the cameras have made Baltimore's roads safer.
"Our program is pretty darn both effective and well-operated," said Jamie Kendrick, who has overseen speed cameras as a deputy transportation director for the city. He described the systemwide error rate as being "well south of one-half of 1 percent."
Averella said that while AAA shares the city's goal of enhancing safety near schools, issues such at those detailed by The Sun reinforce suspicions that the main purpose is to raise money.
"I think it's a public perception problem the city is going to have to work hard to address," she said Sunday. "All it does is chip, chip away at the integrity of the program and makes it hard for motorists to believe it's about safety."
In the case of the Cold Spring camera, city transportation officials said this month that they were testing that device and one on the opposite side of the road. "We have discovered that some larger vehicles may have experienced radar effects that led to abnormal speed readings," officials said by email, adding that refunds will be issued if they find there was interference.
A spokesman for the city's speed camera contractor, Xerox State and Local Solutions Inc., said the company and the city "conducted a thorough investigation" after learning of a potential problem with the Cold Spring camera.
"This investigation determined that the speeds recorded for an extremely limited number of high-profile vehicles were excessive due to radar effects, most likely reflection off the large metallic surfaces of these vehicles," spokesman Chris Gilligan said in an email. "Unfortunately, in these instances, the radar effects were not identified due to human error."
Gilligan said the company also "added in an extra quality-control step in the review process for tickets that are 30 mph over the limit to better prevent these anomalies." A new company, Brekford Corp. of Anne Arundel County, will take over the city's speed camera contract in January.
Clarke said Sunday that the city should have pulled the plug on the camera in February, as soon as a Xerox manager told a city transportation engineer he thought the camera had inaccurately recorded a truck's speed. "I would have turned it off and not turned it on again until I was sure there were no problems," she said.
Clarke said The Sun's findings complicate her plan to introduce legislation requiring school bus companies to report citations to the city. Last month, The Sun published findings that hundreds of privately owned buses have received speed camera tickets in the city.
"Until the camera system is accurate in the eyes of the courts and of the public," Clarke said, "this kind of reporting is not as valuable as it should be for us to protect children."
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