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Has Baltimore gotten religion on speed cameras?

Our view: Shutting down the system over relatively minor errors is a strong symbolic gesture, but it needs to be followed by real reforms

1:11 PM EDT, April 17, 2013

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Baltimore's speed cameras are off-line for the second time this year after officials found faults with some of the tickets issued by the city's new camera system vendor. Officials say they will void or refund nearly 600 erroneous tickets. We would be inclined to compliment the city for how seriously it is taking the responsibility to eliminate all errors from the program if there weren't something so odd about this latest twist in the Baltimore speed camera saga.

According to a news release issued by the Department of Transportation late Tuesday afternoon, the city decided to shut the cameras down after finding some "clerical mistakes" involving the payment options listed on tickets and the speed limit near one camera on the Alameda. A mistake involving the payment options listed on a ticket, while unfortunate, should not require shutting off the cameras. And fixing a camera that is posted to issue tickets to people based on a speed limit of 25 mph in a place where the posted limit is actually 30 mph should be easy to accomplish. As the news release points out, the problems have nothing to do with the technology of the cameras Baltimore's new vendor, Brekford Corp., has installed. It's a simple programming issue.

That's not to say it's an over-reaction to stop issuing tickets while the city determines whether the problem with the Alameda camera is isolated. It's just that it's a much smaller problem than those reported by The Sun's Scott Calvert and Luke Broadwater last year, and none of those prompted the city to shut down its system as a whole.

City officials knew for months about faulty readings from a camera on Cold Spring Lane, and they didn't shut it down, much less the whole system. Messrs. Calvert and Broadwater documented cases of cars traveling much slower than the speed camera tickets indicated — including one case of a car that was flagged for speeding while stopped at a red light — and the cameras stayed on. The city's former vendor, Xerox State and Local Solutions, identified several cameras with error rates in excess of 5 percent. The city shut them down but left the rest of the system on. The city voided more than 1,000 tickets issued under the contract with Xerox because the cameras were programmed with the wrong speed limit, but that didn't prompt the city to shut the system down.

There are two possibilities here. Either the city has gotten religion and is now seeking to do everything possible to foster public trust in the speed camera system, or there's more to the story that we haven't heard.

In response to a reporter's question about the matter this morning, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake suggested it's the former. "I promised that we would get it right, and it's the Department of Transportation's obligation ... to make sure we get it right," she said. "If they see something wrong today, yesterday or in the future, I expect them to take the correct action that would generate not just support but trust in the system."

That's a heartening statement, but it contrasts with actions that have diminished the transparency of the speed camera system. Members of the media were barred from accompanying the mayor's speed camera task force to a meeting at Brekford's headquarters in Anne Arundel County in March, and the group sought to "restrain media access" to future meetings, though it later backed down from that idea. Meanwhile, the city has also stopped posting speed camera data on the Internet.

On the whole, the Rawlings-Blake administration appears to be taking questions about the camera system more seriously than it had in the past, but if it really wants to win the public's trust, it needs to do more. The accuracy of the cameras is, of course, of paramount importance, but it's not the only issue. Motorists also want to know that the system is fair and focused specifically on protecting children on their way to and from school, the only purpose for which the cameras are authorized under state law.

Several of the task force's preliminary recommendations would help, including greater oversight and transparency for the program, a re-evaluation of the way camera sites are chosen, and the creation of a website to provide speed camera maps and data to the public. But the city would also do well to voluntarily adopt some of the reforms from a speed camera bill that died at the end of the General Assembly session, including the creation of an ombudsman with the power to void erroneous tickets and a commitment to move toward a flat-rate contract with the camera vendor, rather than one that's based on the number of tickets issued.

Mayor Rawlings-Blake is right: Speed cameras are an important tool to improve public safety, but the system will only work in the long run if people support it. Suspending the system over relatively minor flaws is an important symbolic gesture, but it needs to be followed up with some real, structural reforms.

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