Restoring trust in speed cameras

If there is a general theme that runs through The Sun's investigation of speed camera programs on the state and local level in the Baltimore area, it is this: Governments have found ways to follow the letter of the law that maximize the number of citations issued while flouting the spirit of the law that protects the public from erroneous tickets.

The law is designed to prevent the camera operator from being paid on a per ticket basis, but Baltimore City, Baltimore County and, to an extent, Howard County found a way around that. The law requires the cameras to take two, time-stamped photos of each alleged violation to serve as evidence of speeding, but the state, Baltimore County and Howard County render that requirement meaningless. State guidelines define what a "school" is for the purposes of speed camera location, but the law itself does not, and the city has chosen a broad interpretation. It recently shut down some questionable cameras, but it has not conceded the point — nor, of course, has it refunded any of the tickets those cameras produced.

Del. Jon Cardin today proposed creating penalties for camera operators when they issue erroneous tickets. That certainly might provide more incentive for them to be careful, but it would not solve all the problems with the program. State legislators need to take a comprehensive look at the speed camera law to make sure the way it has been implemented conforms with their intent and provides sufficient protection for motorists.

The state's speed camera law says, "If a contractor operates a speed monitoring system on behalf of a local jurisdiction, the contractor's fee may not be contingent on the number of citations issued or paid." But local governments have used self-serving definitions of the word "operates" to justify systems in which contractors are paid on a per-ticket basis.

Since the inception of its speed camera program, Baltimore City has had a contract with a subsidiary of Xerox that pays the company a set amount per ticket issued, generally a little less than half of each $40 fine. Baltimore County initially paid a flat fee to Xerox, but it recently switched to a per-ticket contract. Howard County has a blended arrangement that includes both flat fees and per-ticket payments. The services the contractor performs differ somewhat in each jurisdiction, but in the city, for example, Xerox maintains the cameras and vets possible violations, which are then forwarded to the police for final review before going to motorists.

What the law needs to make clear is that any contractor who has a hand in determining whether tickets are issued should not have an incentive to issue more of them.

The law also says that cameras need to provide two separate, time-stamped images of each violation that both include the same stationary object. Baltimore City's citations round the time to the thousandth of the second, which makes it possible to calculate, with some precision, the speed of the vehicle based on the distance it traveled in the half-second interval between photos. Cameras used by the State Highway Administration and Baltimore and Howard counties round to the nearest second, which makes such calculations impossible. The General Assembly needs to change the law to require the same standard used in Baltimore City.

State law says that cameras may operate in school zones, which it defines as anywhere within half a mile of a school. Subsequently adopted guidelines are more precise, specifying that the cameras must be within 500 feet of a K-12 school, but those restrictions do not have the force of law. The legislature should adopt them as statute.

Several recent cases documented by The Sun's Scott Calvert and Luke Broadwater in which time-stamped photos from Baltimore cameras showed wildly inaccurate speed data call for a separate response. Xerox has attempted and failed to replicate the problems reported at two cameras on Cold Spring Lane and has stopped issuing tickets from those locations while it tries to sort out the source of the problem. The company has suggested, among other things, that the city paint markings on the pavement to make it easier to calculate the speed of supposed violators. That's an excellent idea and should be required by law wherever speed cameras are used so motorists and judges can more easily determine whether the tickets are valid.

Speed cameras can be a valuable tool to increase public safety, but they have to be accurate, and they have to be used in such a way that motorists can effectively challenge them if they are somehow in error. It's clear that Maryland's speed camera program is currently failing that test, and the General Assembly needs to step in to fix it.

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