Speed camera analysis thwarted by driver privacy law

Here's a recipe for systematically fact-checking the accuracy of speed camera tickets, at least in Baltimore City where the time stamps on citation photos go to the thousandth of a second:

Take a random sample of tickets. Use the two time-stamped photos on each one to physically measure the distance traveled so as to calculate the vehicle's actual speed. Then compare that to the alleged speed listed on the ticket. Repeat.

The Sun has employed this method to document erroneous readings at seven city speed cameras. But we've relied on people to send us their own tickets, and Maryland law largely bars the government itself from releasing the photos it uses to claim that a motorist broke the law. Without that key ingredient — the random sample of tickets — there's no way to do a large-scale, independent analysis.

The restriction, on the books since the 1990s and first applied to toll booth cameras, is meant to protect drivers' privacy, said Del. Sandy Rosenberg, who pushed for the provision. "You have a reasonable expectation of privacy about where you were at a certain time," he said. Among the few allowed to receive the photos, which show the back of the vehicle and its license plate, are the owner, the owner's lawyer and police.

Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat, invoked stalking fears, saying drivers' whereabouts at a given time shouldn't be knowable to people who don't have their "best interests at heart." But he says he never meant to thwart outside reviews of speed camera systems. If there's a way to make that possible and still protect privacy, he said, "I'm willing to see how we can address that."

Although there's generally no expectation of privacy in public, five Supreme Court justices indicated in a January ruling that there may be one when the government amasses loads of information about someone, said University of Maryland law professor Danielle Citron, who studies privacy issues.

Citron lauded state lawmakers for walling off the photos from public view because she said multiple tickets could reveal a person's travel patterns that could, in turn, aid a stalker. But she called the state law too restrictive and said that "there should be exceptions to interrogate systems to make sure they are accurate."

Scott Calvert

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