By Luke Broadwater and Scott Calvert, The Baltimore Sun
9:21 AM EST, November 21, 2012
Turns out the wheels of government move faster than you might think.
Among the 2.5 million speed camera violations issued in the last three years to vehicles in and around Baltimore, thousands were mailed to the same government that issued the tickets.
More than 8,000 of the $40 automated speed camera tickets have been issued to vehicles owned by the state, Baltimore City and Baltimore County since 2009, according to a Baltimore Sun analysis of citation records.
A range of city-owned vehicles have been snapped by the speed cameras in area school zones or highway work zones. They include trash trucks, school system buses, parking enforcement sedans, two Health Department motor homes and street sweepers among the more than 4,400 tickets issued to city vehicles. Sixty-five cars and trucks in the city's fleet have amassed 10 or more tickets.
City public works employees have racked up more speeding tickets — over 1,300 — than city police officers, who are legally permitted to zip through city streets when responding to emergency calls.
"We have to have higher standards," said Del. James E. Malone Jr., a Baltimore County Democrat who chairs the Motor Vehicles and Transportation Subcommittee in the House of Delegates. "We shouldn't be speeding unless it's emergency conditions. I would hope that each different jurisdiction takes this information very seriously."
State-owned vehicles have accumulated more than 3,100 speed camera tickets in the past three years, and Baltimore County-owned vehicles have received about 500, records show.
The tickets given to government-owned vehicles were just one finding in a broad investigation conducted by The Sun that also found speed camera tickets can be inaccurate, and the process unfair. Since The Sun's report was published last weekend, city and state officials have called for greater oversight of the program, and a city councilman announced plans for a public hearing.
To analyze speed camera use in the area, The Sun compiled data from nearly every violation issued by Baltimore, Baltimore County and the State Highway Administration since the cameras were authorized statewide in 2009. It then compared the data to lists of government-vehicle license plate numbers obtained through public information requests.
While government policies generally require employees to pay tickets they incur on the job, Baltimore City "only laxly enforced" its policy until December, according to an internal Finance Department memo obtained by The Sun.
Hundreds of citations were allowed to accumulate, the June 25 memo said, with "many Police employees continuing to have their citations administratively abated."
Citation records show that as of late September, more than 300 city vehicles had unpaid tickets, some dating to just after the late 2009 launch of the city's speed camera program. More than a dozen of those are vehicles belonging to the city's parking enforcement division, whose employees put tickets on windshields of cars at expired parking meters.
Officials say they've since instituted monthly monitoring of speed camera tickets and identified vehicles with the most violations.
At least one public agency — the Maryland Transit Administration — requires additional training for drivers who are habitually caught speeding in buses and other vehicles.
"Our operators are human, like all of us," said MTA spokesman Terry Owens, whose agency ran up 1,569 tickets the past fiscal year. "There may be a circumstance where you find yourself above the speed limit on a given road. While we encourage our staff to obey the laws of the road, it can happen. And if anybody is shown to have repeat offenses, that's the kind of thing we'd flag and bring in for additional training."
Owens noted that the MTA has 900 vehicles on the road every day, and its professional drivers log up to 20 times more hours on the road than typical motorists. He did not know how many drivers, if any, had been brought in for additional training due to receiving multiple speed camera tickets.
Among city-owned vehicles, a Jeep Liberty used by school police is the biggest violator — with 29 tickets from speed cameras, records show. Seven of the citations were recorded in the same county school zone on Putty Hill Avenue.
School officials would not name the driver or the person's job title. Spokeswoman Molly Rath would say only that "the primary driver of the vehicle in question at the time of the citations is no longer with the district." Records show that the school system paid at least some of the tickets.
A Chevy Impala belonging to the Police Department received the second-highest number of tickets, with 26, The Sun found, followed by a Ford F150 operated by Bureau of Water and Wastewater employees. It has gotten more than 20 tickets.
Public Works spokesman Kurt Kocher said he could not reveal the name of the F150's driver but said the individual "received progressive discipline and also was required to attend driver training classes." He said "the driver's behavior has improved significantly" since the training and discipline.
"All City agencies, including DPW, are absolutely committed to driver safety," Kocher said, when asked why his agency rolled up more tickets than any other, including the Police Department with its 3,000 sworn officers.
Kocher noted that Public Works has the city government's largest fleet with more than 990 vehicles, translating to less than one ticket per vehicle every two years. "The city's policy holds all employees accountable for paying for the tickets," he said, "and there is a personnel process in place to discipline employees who repeatedly speed."
Nevertheless, experts who study speed cameras say agencies need to emphasize that their employees should not be speeding with any frequency.
"That certainly doesn't sound good," said Roy E. Lucke, the director of Highway and Transportation Safety Programs at the Northwestern University Center for Public Safety, who is generally supportive of the cameras. "I hope they're serious about tracking back the vehicle to who is driving it and making them personally responsible."
City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who said she too has received speed camera tickets, said she'd like to see increased training and education in city agencies.
"We shouldn't be among the largest offenders of trying to keep our children and elderly safe," she said.
Clarke introduced legislation Monday 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.
"I'm concerned some of our bus drivers aren't safe drivers and they're driving our children," she said.
The Sun's investigation found numerous problems with the city's speed camera system, including that officials 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 routinely 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 rewards speed camera vendors with a cut of each fine the system issues.
After The Sun published the results of its investigation, City Councilman Brandon Scott called for a hearing about the cameras' accuracy and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said she would not tolerate a single erroneous ticket under her administration.
Rawlings-Blake has also convened a task force to study the city's automated traffic enforcement devices.
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