The tractor-trailer hit 70 mph as it passed the Poly-Western high school campus on Cold Spring Lane, barreling down a turn lane at twice the legal speed limit. Or so the $40 citation claimed. Just before Falls Road, a pole-mounted speed camera clocked the truck with radar and snapped some pictures. A ticket soon went out in the mail.
On paper it seemed like just the kind of blatant, dangerous school-zone speeding violation that the ubiquitous enforcement cameras are designed to catch and deter.
Except the truck wasn't going 70 mph that September morning — or even fast enough to get a ticket, The Baltimore Sun determined after examining the camera's time-stamped photos and measuring how far the vehicle traveled. Simple math proves the automated camera was off the mark.
The camera had been misfiring for months, in fact. And city officials knew it.
Going back to last winter, the truck's owner got three other tickets from the same camera, and in each case the camera's own photos show the citations were wrong. Other truck companies report similar complaints: Same camera, same issue.
According to records obtained and reviewed by The Sun, the city government and its speed camera contractor discussed problems with that camera as far back as February, yet the device continued churning out thousands of speeding tickets.
"To put it in simple terms, it's not fair," said Michael Weiss, chief financial officer of the Naron Mary Sue Candy Co., whose trucks have gotten four tickets that photo evidence shows were inaccurate. "Nobody likes to get a ticket for something they didn't do, whether it's jaywalking or spitting on the sidewalk or speeding."
Since 2009, automated cameras aimed at nabbing and fining speeders have proliferated across 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, with 83 cameras and more than $19 million in annual revenue.
When the city announced recently that it took in $4 million more than expected from speed cameras last year, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake told drivers to simply obey the law if they don't like them. The tickets, she said, amount to a "minor inconvenience."
They can also be inaccurate and the process unfair, The Sun found in an investigation that focused on the city's program but which also analyzed automated speeding tickets issued around the region.
While the city reaps millions from motorists who believe their only practical option is to pay up, the evidence used to issue speed camera tickets is not nearly as unimpeachable as many drivers and lawmakers think, The Sun found. Even some city District Court judges criticize the program.
In addition, city officials have put cameras in locations that flout state guidelines calling for placement near schools, and while they deny any violations of the law, they recently shut down five of the devices after being challenged about their compliance. Together those five cameras have generated 110,000 tickets.
Far more lucrative than city officials envisioned, Baltimore's speed camera system also suffers from spotty government oversight and poor record-keeping — and the data is mixed on whether the cameras have indeed made roads safer and resulted in fewer injuries.
Among The Sun's findings:
- Tickets routinely fail to hold up in court in the city because of glitches in the data, the government's inability to produce evidence, the failure by police to weed out bad citations or obvious instances of motorists being wrongly accused.
- Nearly 6,000 tickets have been deemed erroneous by the city because cameras were programmed with the incorrect speed limit or location address, or the equipment malfunctioned, resulting in several hundred thousand dollars in refunds and forgiven fines.
- Baltimore has grown increasingly reliant on a private contractor for speeding enforcement, and for months government officials could not say how many tickets had been issued on the city's behalf.
- While vehicle owners are mailed pictures that purport to show them speeding by at least 12 mph, the citations don't mention that most cameras in the city also record video — and that those videos can exonerate drivers in court.
- Traditional police-officer enforcement has dropped since cameras were installed, yet more than 170,000 vehicles on area roads have been ticketed by the cameras enough times that those drivers' licenses could have been suspended if the citations hadn't been issued by a machine.
There also is little question that speed cameras have caught many thousands of drivers who were exceeding the speed limit on Baltimore-area roads. City officials say the cameras have slowed drivers and made 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 system-wide error rate as being "well south of one-half of 1 percent."
Critics of the speed cameras say such issues cast doubt on the system's fundamental soundness and fairness.
"With so many problems being reported with the city's system, the integrity of the program is called into question," said AAA Mid-Atlantic spokeswoman Ragina Averella, who was briefed on The Sun's findings. "It's difficult for motorists to have faith in the system and believe it's not about raising money instead of saving lives as it was intended."
AAA has long criticized fee arrangements used by the city and elsewhere that pay the contractor a cut of each $40 citation, arguing that it creates incentives to process more tickets.
Others see such an abundance of problems that they think the city could owe millions of dollars in refunds to vehicle owners if the speed cameras were challenged in court. Steven A. Glazer, a federal administrative law judge who has written about Maryland's cameras, believes the city's program is so legally problematic that many of the speed camera fines should be returned to drivers.
"They should refund them with interest, absolutely," said Glazer, a University of Maryland adjunct law professor who wrote a law journal article about the cameras this year. "Since the jurisdictions are expecting people to follow speed limits strictly, then they should follow the law implementing speed cameras equally strictly. We expect them to act the same way they've treated us."
Glazer said he and his family have received two dozen speed camera tickets in the area the last six years – none in Baltimore – and got nine of them dismissed.
The city's speed program has come under increasing scrutiny during the last few months. Rawlings-Blake recently created a task force to examine automated camera enforcement, the city announced it will replace its camera contractor and officials began an internal review of the Cold Spring camera's accuracy.
North America's biggest camera network
Until several years ago, a speeding ticket in Maryland always meant a paper citation that a police officer handed a driver through a rolled-down window after a traffic stop. Today, jurisdictions across Maryland have delegated much of their speed enforcement to automated cameras, which announce themselves to motorists with a bright flash in the instant that the photos are taken.
About 40 jurisdictions in the state have the cameras, from rural Eastern Shore towns to major population centers, according to the state comptroller's office. Maryland is one of 13 states, along with the District of Columbia, that use them.
Montgomery County was the first to adopt speed cameras, starting in 2007. Two years later the General Assembly, at the urging of Gov. Martin O'Malley, permitted the devices statewide in school zones and highway work zones.
The law set fines at $40 — well below the cost of a traditional speeding ticket — and decreed that violations cannot be reported to insurance companies or used to levy "points" on a driver's license. The cameras' use in school zones is restricted to weekdays from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., while in work zones they can operate around the clock. By law, all tickets issued to Maryland drivers must be mailed within two weeks to be valid.
Baltimore City, which has had red-light cameras since 1999, jumped into the program quickly and aggressively. According to Xerox State and Local Solutions Inc., which manages speed cameras for the city and other governments in Maryland and around the country, Baltimore has the largest combined speed and red-light camera program in North America.
The city has collected more than $38.6 million in speed camera fines. Roughly $10.4 million was paid in fees to Xerox, which gets up to $19.20 for each ticket the system issues. The company, which also manages the other camera programs in the Baltimore area, is slated to lose its contract with the city in January, after officials concluded that another company, Hanover-based Brekford Corp., would generate more money for the city.
Most of the rest of the ticket money has gone toward programs for traffic safety and management, snow removal and street lighting, city officials say. Last year's unanticipated revenue will be used for one-time projects, such as improvements to intersections with numerous accidents.
To examine the impact of speed cameras in the Baltimore area, The Sun compiled data for more than 2.5 million citations issued since 2009 by Baltimore, Baltimore County and the State Highway Administration. Officials in Howard County, the only other area government that uses speed cameras, refused to provide comparable data, disagreeing with their counterparts in other counties by concluding that state law prohibits the disclosure of license plate numbers.
Just the process of gathering the information revealed the government's uncertain grasp of its lucrative traffic enforcement system.
Officials with the SHA twice released data to The Sun that contained tens of thousands of errors and omissions and, when asked to explain, said they had to check with Xerox, which keeps all of the government's speed-camera records. This spring the city released data on 736,000 citations, calling it comprehensive, then weeks later gave The Sun other records putting the total at 1.1 million tickets. Asked to explain the increase, city officials declined.
The available numbers reveal a dogged and prolific enforcement operation. And while Baltimore County and the state highway agency use the devices, the city's camera network dwarfs the others. The 1.5 million tickets issued through mid-October by the city are more than the other districts combined regionally, and its records reveal problems not found elsewhere.
A single speed camera, positioned on a busy street, will routinely record dozens of violations a day. Some in Baltimore have notched more than 800 in one 14-hour day, or one per minute.
When they're in operation, few transgressors are spared. Emergency vehicles get a pass while responding to calls, and state law exempts rentals and cars with long-term leases or dealer tags. The state also doesn't go after cars with Canadian plates.
For most other vehicles, a drive past one of the cameras at 12 mph or more over the speed limit quickly results in a citation sent through the mail. And those citations have quickly supplanted traditional tickets as the primary speeding enforcement mechanism across the Baltimore area, records show.
During the first week of June, for instance, the number of speed camera tickets logged by city cameras — 15,902 — was more than double the 6,941 traditional speeding tickets that Baltimore police officers handed out all last year.
'We're not trying to trap them'
City officials say it's all done in the name of safety. Lower ticket tallies from many of the cameras, as well as before-and-after speed studies conducted by the government, show that drivers are slowing down, they say. As awareness grows, they expect more motorists to ease up on the gas.
"We're not trying to trap them," said Frank Murphy, the city's deputy transportation director for operations. "We're trying to give them an opportunity to slow down themselves. If they don't, then the camera does its job."
Officials also stress that the program has safeguards: Cameras are checked daily to ensure they work properly, they say. Each device is calibrated annually by an independent expert. Xerox employees review every potential citation twice. And a police officer signs off on each ticket before it is mailed to the vehicle owner, though in the city a single officer can review 1,200 citations per shift.
Xerox points out that the type of radar devices used in Baltimore is certified as accurate by the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
"The number of violations drops anywhere we install cameras," said Mark J. Talbot, a vice president at Xerox, which has received more than $20 million from the city, Baltimore County and the State Highway Administration. "To me that's success. And if it's working, it's solving the problem. That means more customers and more people will want it in their community."
Yet the total number of drivers caught speeding by the cameras has climbed even after all of the city's cameras were installed. The city recorded its biggest monthly total in June, with 86,000 tickets, and this year's total has already eclipsed last year's.
One reason for the increase is the eight portable cameras operated by the city, The Sun's analysis shows. Whereas most of the city's speed cameras are permanently affixed to roadside poles — and the number of tickets there typically declines as motorists become aware of them — the city relocates its eight portable cameras among dozens of different locations.
At a recent task force meeting, city officials presented a graph showing reduced speeding at fixed-pole cameras. But such drops mask the outsize role played by the portable cameras. During a three-month stretch that began in June, portable cameras logged more than 80,000 citations, or more than a third of the city's total.
City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke complained that the city is too quick to move portable cameras to new locations, after they've caught many motorists but before they have made a lasting impact on how fast people drive.
"Put them where they belong," she said, "and leave them there."
One Nissan, 125 (unpaid) tickets
If lawmakers expected roadside signs or the arrival of a speed camera ticket in the mail to change how drivers behave, tens of thousands of people don't seem to have gotten the message.
More than 170,000 vehicles — equivalent to nearly 20 percent of all the licensed drivers in the city and the county — have received at least four citations in the Baltimore region since late 2009, records show.
Had those tickets been issued by police officers, many of the drivers' licenses would likely have been suspended. A traditional moving violation of 10 mph or more over the speed limit carries a minimum of two points on a driver's record, and eight points within two years can trigger a suspension.
Some drivers are particularly brazen, careless or unlucky — or some combination. Nearly 600 vehicles have had 30 or more citations, and more than three dozen have racked up at least 50.
Topping the list is a Nissan Xterra with North Carolina plates that has received 125 citations, nearly all on Kelly Avenue in the city's Mount Washington neighborhood. As with all speed camera violators, the owner's identity is confidential under federal law.
Records show the Nissan's owner hasn't paid any of the tickets and owes the city $5,000. According to the North Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles, the license plate expired more than a year ago, meaning the SUV shouldn't be traveling on area roads at any speed.
"Wow … wow," Murphy said, after hearing about some of the frequent fliers. "You almost want to say, 'What are you thinking? Why do you do this? You know if you hit the brake, you save 40 bucks!'"
The state Motor Vehicle Administration won't renew a vehicle owner's registration if it has an unpaid camera ticket. The agency also charges $30 to remove the "flag" it places on a registration file for each unpaid citation. The MVA has collected $12.4 million in such flag fees, which works out to more than 413,000 unpaid tickets.
Sen. James N. Robey, a Howard County Democrat who sponsored Maryland's speed camera legislation, said he found it "unbelievable" people could amass so many tickets. "That number is surprising, it really is," he said.
Beating tickets in court
Anyone who gets a speed-camera ticket in Maryland has the right to challenge it in District Court. Very few bother. But those who take the time have decent odds of winning, at least in Baltimore City.
The Sun reviewed 13 speed-camera sessions overseen by five judges at the city's Wabash Avenue courthouse. In more than half of the 415 cases, judges dismissed the ticket or made a not-guilty finding. Two judges, Melissa Copeland and Catherine Curran O'Malley, sided with motorists 75 percent of the time.
A third judge spoke critically of the system even as she found drivers guilty. After hearing a motorist complain that the automated citation essentially declared him guilty until proven innocent, Judge Rachel Cogen responded: "If you want to change the statute, I'm with you."
Unlike most court cases where the government is represented by a city attorney, in speed-camera hearings the city relies on testimony from its contractor, who stands opposite the accused motorist with a laptop full of data from the cameras. Each case takes only minutes for judges to hear and decide.
Some motorists arrive in court with the facts clearly on their side. Parkville resident David Smith stood before Copeland to appeal a citation that showed a license plate ending in 'O,' whereas his ends in 'J.' The judge dismissed it, adding, "The court apologizes for the error and the fact you had to come down here this morning."
On another day, Jocelyn Morris of Northeast Baltimore challenged two tickets that claimed she was speeding in the 400 block of Cherry Hill Road and, 26 seconds later, speeding in the 1200 block of the same road. For that to be possible, Morris would have to have been driving more than 100 mph.
"These really are the same time, within seconds," Cogen said after studying the two citations. The judge found Morris not guilty for both tickets.
Another city resident, Steven Histon, fought two tickets that arrived in his mailbox around the same time. He was about to pay them when he noticed something odd.
It wasn't just that the automated cameras had caught his SUV speeding twice on the same day, or that both citations came from the same stretch of North Charles Street. The tickets had also been logged a mere second apart. And while one had his car clocked at 42 mph, the other said 60 mph.
In court, a Xerox official made no attempt to defend either ticket, conceding, "It looks like a mistake was made." The judge tossed out both of Histon's citations.
A number of motorists appeared in court with tickets whose speed-camera photographs showed multiple vehicles — cases that should have been rejected before they were mailed, and which judges said did not show conclusive evidence of guilt.
And scores of motorists saw their speed-camera citations dismissed by the courts because of a lack of evidence they never knew should have existed to begin with: a video snippet of their car in motion.
The city's speed camera citations are covered in fine print. There is a statement, for example, saying that the three photos — two showing a car's progression and one zooming in on the tag — are evidence of a violation of the speed limit.
But nowhere on the citations does it say there is usually also a video clip of the alleged speeding, and that a contractor will likely play it in court for the judge. Benjamin Parker said he was stunned to learn of the video when he went to court to appeal 27 tickets. "I don't think that was right," he said. "If you knew you had a video, you could defend yourself better."
Talbot, the Xerox executive, said the video is "just supplemental evidence." Yet some judges use it to guide their decisions, and even consider it essential evidence.
Both O'Malley — whose husband, Governor O'Malley, signed the speed-camera bill into law — and Copeland dismissed tickets whenever video was not available, even when the citations were logged by portable camera units, which Xerox says do not record video.
Copeland explained her reasoning from the bench this way: "I don't believe as a judge that I can make a determination of your speed in a still photo. I believe, since it's a moving violation, I should have evidence of your vehicle moving."
University of Baltimore law professor Charles Tiefer said it's "surprising and significant" that the citations make no mention of video. The modest $40 penalty makes it unlikely the state's high court would find it unconstitutional, he said, "but you can do a lot of unfair things without them being unconstitutional as well."
"And it is unfair," he said. "The city hides from the alleged traffic violator the video evidence which they will use on their side — on the city's side." Revealing its existence in court, he added, is "too late for it being effectively used on the motorist's side."
Thousands of tickets voided
As revenue rolls in — the city says it's still owed $15 million in unpaid speed camera tickets — there are indications that the city has not always followed the speed-camera law as intended.
City officials have voided nearly 6,000 tickets because cameras were programmed with the wrong speed limit, citations incorrectly listed a camera's location or the devices malfunctioned. In all, city officials have had to recall batches of tickets due to errors seven times over three years, forgoing the revenue those tickets would have generated.
Even a failure to clear vegetation away from signs alerting motorists to the speed cameras has been an issue in the city. Such signs are required by state law. One man got a judge to throw out his ticket after going to court with photos showing the sign hidden by leaves.
Information the city recently gave The Sun included 9,500 citations where the clocked speed was less than 12 mph over the speed limit. City transportation spokeswoman Adrienne Barnes said some were among 6,000 that were voided. The rest were legitimate, she said, but due to an unexplained "error in input," the speed limit appeared in the database as 30 mph instead of 25 mph.
And now, in the case of the camera on eastbound Cold Spring Lane near Poly-Western, there are doubts that an automated citation means a vehicle was actually driving fast enough to merit a ticket.
The Sun examined eight tickets issued by the camera to two trucking companies. One citation, issued Sept. 4, claimed a truck was traveling 70 mph in a 35 mph zone. Like every speed camera ticket issued under state law, it included two photos of the truck, offered as evidence the vehicle broke the law. According to time stamps on the photographs, they were snapped by the camera a half-second apart.
A truck traveling 70 mph will cover just over 51 feet in half a second. But by measuring street markings that were clearly evident in the photo, The Sun found that the truck traveled no more than 30 feet, which translates to a speed of 41 mph. The other citations also yielded measurements indicating considerably slower speeds than those listed on the citations and none fast enough to warrant a $40 citation.
In early February, before most of the eight citations were issued, the city and Xerox were both alerted to problems with that camera, according to emails The Sun obtained between city officials and another truck operator.
In the emails, Utz Quality Foods food safety manager Phil Redding urged city officials to review a ticket issued to an Utz truck in January for driving 47 mph, noting that a video of the alleged violation "shows him not going fast." The city forwarded the complaint to Xerox program manager Donovan Wilson, who reviewed the case and told the city: "It seems that the vehicle was not going 47 mph."
A month later, city transportation engineer Francis Udenta asked Wilson if the ticket had been voided and whether "the issue with the camera has been rectified." Wilson replied that the citation had been voided, but he did not address questions about the camera's accuracy. The Sun obtained the emails from Ron Ely, an anti-speed camera activist who runs a website, StopBigBrotherMD.org, and their authenticity was confirmed by Redding.
Since the complaint from Redding, the Cold Spring camera has generated several thousand more tickets, including dozens of the fastest speeds recorded by the city's network of 83 cameras — including a school bus recorded going 74 mph.
"It doesn't make sense how the system is, and we're frustrated with it," Redding said in an interview.
At first Weiss, of Mary Sue Candy, said the tickets concerned him, because the Baltimore company never wants its drivers speeding, "especially in a school zone, and especially in a truck with our name all over it." His frustration is now directed at the city, he said. "The irritation increases as each ticket comes in."
This month, after inquiries from The Sun, city transportation officials said they were testing that speed camera and the one on the opposite side of Cold Spring.
"We have discovered that some larger vehicles may have experienced radar effects that led to abnormal speed readings," officials said by email.
"If we find that there was in fact an interference with the system, refunds will be issued to those affected."
Xerox spokesman Chris Gilligan said Friday that the company and the city "conducted a thorough investigation" after learning of a potential issue 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," he 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."
That extra review would not have applied to two of the Mary Sue tickets, which wrongly claimed its trucks were going 47 mph.
Five cameras turned off
In August, five city cameras that have produced roughly 110,000 tickets suddenly stopped issuing any at all. One of them, on North Charles Street across from Notre Dame University of Maryland, was among the city's more prolific, yielding nearly a third of the combined total.
Asked to explain, city officials said they pulled the plugs after being challenged about how they define the "school zone" in which cameras are allowed.
State law is vague, saying a school zone can be anywhere within a half-mile of a school, whereas state guidelines for speed cameras say the devices should be placed only within 500 feet of a school, and only those serving kindergarten through 12th grade.
Baltimore's more liberal definition of "school zone" led to placement of cameras at colleges, across from hospitals with nursing students and near church preschools, The Sun found.
"We are especially concerned with the broad interpretation of how the city defines a school zone," said Averella, the spokeswoman for AAA.
It was complaints from Averella's group that led the city to shut down the five cameras and change its school zone definition to include only K-to-12 schools. The city maintains that all tickets issued at the five now-dark cameras, including the one by Notre Dame, are valid because they complied with the broad language of the state law.
"We came to the conclusion that, for the credibility of the program, we would be more conservative than we have been in terms of how we define school zone," said Murphy, the transportation official.
One of the five cameras fell into a different category. Since 2009 it had been cranking out tickets on Wilkens Avenue in Southwest Baltimore, placed there because of Cardinal Gibbons School. But Gibbons closed in May 2010. Murphy said the camera remained in use because another school, Seton Keough High, sits "about on the borderline" of the half-mile radius.
The city recently reconsidered and decided to turn off the camera because, Murphy said, people might wrongly assume it's there for the long-closed Gibbons.
Mixed record on traffic safety
The stated aim of the cameras has always been to improve road safety, not to raise money. And numerous studies conducted around the world have concluded that speed cameras do lead to slower driving, with fewer collisions and fatal crashes.
According to a recent analysis of 35 studies that was published in the Cochrane Review, which aggregates and analyses scientific research, drivers reduced their speed by up to 15 percent in areas where cameras were used, while crashes declined as much as 49 percent and the number of serious injuries fell.
"Anybody who studies this finds them to be effective in terms of reducing speeding," said Richard Retting, engineer for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. "The jury is in on that question."
City officials have reached the same conclusion. Before-and-after studies done by the city show vehicle speeds dropped at all but five of Baltimore's initial 48 camera locations, many of them sharply. And the cameras don't just reduce speeds near where they are placed but throughout the city, officials maintain, because motorists worry that a camera could lurk around any bend.
"Because we do have a lot of devices around the city, you can't just say, 'Oh, I know where they all are,'" said Murphy. "You have to obey the speed limit or at least stay within 12 mph pretty much everywhere, because you don't know."
But the numbers also show wild fluctuations at some locations and during some time periods, suggesting that forces other than mere driving habits are at play. A busy camera on South Caton Avenue, for example, logged about 3,100 tickets in April 2011, but more than 4,500 two months later. The number dropped to 1,600 later that year before climbing back above 2,500 several months later.
City traffic engineers chalked up the swings to lanes being closed and reopened during bridge construction nearby.
As the camera system has expanded in Maryland, most data shows crashes have gone down, although a closer examination shows mixed results.
Baltimore reported 19,529 traffic accidents last year, a decline of about 270 from two years earlier. The number of fatal crashes dropped by almost half over that time, to 22. Accidents in Baltimore County fell from 13,254 to 12,433, and fatal crashes dropped from 79 to 70. Statewide, accidents and fatal crashes also decreased.
Yet some categories of crashes, such as those involving pedestrians, rose in both the city and Baltimore County. And for the first half of 2012, as speed camera use in Maryland hit a new peak, the number of fatal crashes statewide was 17 percent higher than the year before.
While crash statistics fluctuate, over time "you can be pretty confident that reductions are going to happen," said Nancy K. Fitton, a Cochrane Center coordinator at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
However, the Cochrane Review's authors said "higher quality" studies are needed, particularly in the United States, where camera data hasn't been examined as closely as it has in Europe and Australia. Other experts share that assessment.
"We need that definitive study," said Roy E. Lucke, who directs the Highway and Transportation Safety Programs at Northwestern University's Center for Public Safety. "It hasn't been written yet — on the true effectiveness of speed cameras on reducing speed in the areas where they're installed."
Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun