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Baltimore's faulty speed cameras

Public OfficialsSafety of CitizensAAAStephanie Rawlings-Blake

Speed cameras, in principle, are a good thing. They offer authorities the ability to crack down on speeders in the areas where they present the greatest danger — school zones and construction sites — in a way they could never achieve through traditional means. Their purpose is to slow drivers down, prevent accidents and save lives.

But a report on Sunday by The Sun's Scott Calvert and Luke Broadwater casts serious doubt on whether Baltimore City's vast speed camera program is achieving that promise, or whether it has instead become a lucrative new revenue stream for a cash-strapped city. Among the many faults they discovered were thousands of tickets that have been thrown out because of misprogrammed cameras and thousands more that were issued by another camera after officials learned that it had problems. They found that city judges routinely toss out tickets for deficiencies — a problem not seen with the Baltimore County and state speed camera programs — and that Baltimore has stretched the notion of a "school zone" far beyond the definition in state guidelines.

Perhaps most crucially, in other parts of the state, speed cameras, once installed, become a rapidly diminishing revenue stream as motorists learn from the $40 tickets they get in the mail and slow down. But in Baltimore, revenues have risen even as the city has stopped installing new cameras. Baltimore collected $19 million from its speed cameras last year, $4 million more than it had expected, prompting some city officials to propose spending the cash to keep open recreation centers or for other uses far removed from the goal of improving traffic safety.

To her credit, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has resisted that idea and has impaneled a task force to study the speed camera program. A spokesman said Sunday that the group was already aware of the issues Messrs. Calvert and Broadwater raised and was investigating them.

We hope that is the case, but the first news release about the group's work — perhaps not coincidentally issued as The Sun's speed camera report hit subscribers' doorsteps on Sunday morning — casts doubt on whether the mayor's purpose is to better manage the speed camera system or to better manage the politics of speed cameras.

The title of the release is, "More than half of city speed camera tickets issued to non-city motorists in fiscal 2012." It goes on to say that 43 percent of the citations went to city residents, 51 percent to people who live in other Maryland counties, and 6 percent to people registered out of state. It quotes the mayor, who had previously implied that city motorists were too thick to learn the lesson of speed cameras, as saying, "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."

That's an interesting bit of trivia but totally irrelevant. As a spokeswoman for AAA Mid-Atlantic pointed out, the purpose of speed cameras is to get people to slow down, no matter where they come from. Even if 100 percent of the tickets went to non-city residents, the fact would remain that the cameras have not achieved their purpose.

Buried at the end of the news release is another nugget of information: Tickets from fixed-location speed cameras in Baltimore are declining by 2.5 citations per month. Missing from the statement are a few key pieces of context. On average, Baltimore speed cameras issued nearly 700 citations per month last year, and some cameras far more than that — one in the 2600 block of Gwynns Falls Parkway issued an average of 157 a day. And a disproportionate share of Baltimore speed camera tickets are issued not by the fixed cameras but by eight mobile units city officials move around at will. Those units represent less than 10 percent of the total number of cameras but were responsible for a third of the tickets during a three-month period this summer.

Baltimore officials need to figure out why their speed camera program is not behaving the way others have, and there are four possibilities that bear investigation.

•Has Baltimore's speed camera program, which is one of the largest in North America, grown too fast to be effectively managed? City police officers review every ticket before it is issued, but they must examine as many as 1,200 in a shift. Are some of the erroneous tickets — like those based on photos showing multiple cars — a result of insufficient review?

•Are the mobile cameras effective in reducing speeds over the long term, or just at increasing revenue?

•Does the city's contract that pays a camera operator a per ticket fee produce an incentive to allow more potentially questionable tickets through? The state and Baltimore County have paid flat fees to their camera vendors, though the county is switching over to a per ticket arrangement.

•Are the cameras placed in locations that address the greatest danger to students, or just in places where they are most likely to catch speeders?

In the meantime, the city needs to immediately change the language on the citations to inform motorists that the speed cameras typically also record video, and that video evidence can be used in court, either for or against them. It's not right for the city to conceal the existence of evidence from the defendant in a court proceeding, even if the matter at hand is a civil citation and not a criminal case.

The simplest response to those who oppose speed cameras is to say that if you don't like them, don't speed. But The Sun's investigation into the region's speed camera programs demonstrates that in the city at least, that promise doesn't always hold. City officials need to fix the program, and they need to do it now, otherwise they risk eroding public support for what can and should be a vital public safety tool.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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