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News Opinion Editorial

Shut off Baltimore's speed cameras

It's time for Baltimore to shut its speed cameras down.

On Friday, the vendor that runs the city's program reported that several cameras have error rates as high as 5 percent, and it doesn't know exactly why. Those cameras are no longer issuing tickets. That's a positive step, and so are several others city officials are making or considering in response to questions about the cameras. But the only way the city is going to restore trust that its intention is to foster public safety, not to generate millions in revenue, is to turn the cameras off until it thoroughly reviews the program and makes whatever changes are necessary to ensure the tickets are accurate and fair.

Officials with Xerox State and Local Solutions believe the problems with the five error-prone cameras are the result of "radar effects" related to the presence of high-walled trucks at the time when tickets were issued. However, Xerox was unable to replicate the problem when it conducted tests at the site of one of the suspect cameras, on Cold Spring Lane. Moreover, not all of the faulty tickets identified by The Sun's Scott Calvert and Luke Broadwater would be explained by the truck theory — notably, the case of a Mazda station wagon that got a ticket while stopped at a red light.

What that ticket and others show is that the flaws with Baltimore's speed camera system are not simply technological bugs but also a result of repeated human error in the reviews that are supposed to go into each ticket before it is mailed. When a camera catches a potential speeder, officials at Xerox vet the ticket, and the Baltimore Police Department must sign off on every citation before it is mailed.

It is unfathomable that even the most cursory review would not have flagged a ticket based on two photos of a motionless car with its brake lights on.

Xerox says it is bolstering its review process, but its contract with the city expires at the end of the year. What do we know about the review processes of the Anne Arundel County company that is supposed to take over the contract? City transportation director Khalil A. Zaied said he will hire an engineering firm to study the cameras and will meet with police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts to talk about the police review process. According to the police, a single officer can review as many as 1,200 tickets in a shift. Does that allow time for officers to do anything more than click OK on a computer screen?

Several months ago, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake created a task force to study the speed camera program, and to their credit, city officials seem to be taking seriously the idea that the system is flawed. But they have not taken the next logical step to shut the cameras down during the review. They should, for both practical and political reasons.

It now appears a near certainty that the General Assembly will seek changes to the speed camera law when it convenes in January. Legislators are likely to clarify the language to make sure speed camera vendors don't have a financial incentive to issue more tickets and to be more explicit about where and when the cameras can operate. Some lawmakers are even talking about penalties for camera operators and/or local governments that issue faulty tickets. Baltimore is now in final negotiations with Hanover-based Brekford Corp. to take over management of its cameras, and the terms of that deal could well be affected by what the legislature does.

From a political standpoint, the city is in danger of losing all public support for speed cameras if it continues to churn out tickets through a process it has good reason to believe is flawed. At least one city has discontinued its speed camera program amid public backlash.

It would be a shame if that happened here. Used properly, speed cameras get drivers to slow down and prevent accidents. Better to pause for a few months to get things right than to risk losing a valuable tool to promote public safety

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