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Baltimore needs a speed camera do-over [Editorial]

Our view: City's program was too large to be managed effectively; it should seek a new operator and a drastically scaled-back system

12:25 PM EST, November 18, 2013

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The failure of Baltimore's speed camera vendor to produce a functional system 11 months after it took over the lucrative contract to operate it should be a sign that it's time for the city to admit that its program had grown too big, too fast and needs to be rebuilt from scratch. Baltimore has every reason to pursue a cancellation of its contract with Anne Arundel County-based Brekford Corp., and if it succeeds, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake should set her sights on creating a much smaller, more modest speed camera system tightly tailored to the goal of the state law that authorized such devices in the first place: keeping kids safe as they walk to and from school.

In its heyday, Baltimore City had by far the largest red light and speed camera program in the state, and quite possibly the largest of any city in the nation. It operated more than 80 speed cameras (plus about 70 red light cameras) and collected as much as $19 million a year from the speed cameras' $40 tickets alone. But its problems were legion.

The first sign of trouble was the fact that speed camera revenues kept going up instead of going down. The whole point of the cameras was that they would act as a deterrent to speeding, not a revenue source. Once motorists learned about the cameras through expensive experience, they were supposed to slow down. That's what happened in other jurisdictions that employed them. But in Baltimore, the opposite was happening.

An investigation by The Sun's Scott Calvert and Luke Broadwater began to explain why. They documented widespread errors in the system — most famously including a case of a ticket given to car parked at a red light. The city's former speed camera vendor, Xerox State and Local Solutions, investigated and found that some of its cameras had error rates in excess of 5 percent. Each ticket was supposed to be reviewed by a Baltimore police officer before it was sent out, but given the avalanche of tickets the city had to process, officers had to evaluate as many as 1,200 of them in a shift. And despite the clear intent of the state's original speed camera law, the city was (and, theoretically, still is) paying the vendor who runs the system on a per-ticket basis instead of a flat fee, leading to questions about whether there is a financial incentive to let questionable tickets through.

Fundamentally, the city's system became divorced from the goal of getting drivers to slow down near schools. The state camera law specifies that they may be operated in school zones, meaning within half a mile of a school. Most jurisdictions placed their cameras on the direct approaches to schools, but many of the city's cameras were located on busy streets where few if any schoolchildren walk. In fact, the relationship between the cameras and the schools they were supposed to protect was often a mystery. Legislation that would have tightened the rules on the location of speed cameras and clarified the law related to per-ticket payments to vendors died as the clock ran out on this year's General Assembly session.

Baltimore needs to take this opportunity to retrench. The goal of speed cameras remains important, and the evidence suggests that much smaller programs have been effective in other jurisdictions in getting motorists to slow down. According to state figures, the overall accident rates in Baltimore, Montgomery and Prince George's counties have declined in the age of speed cameras, but in the city, they went up. Those statistics aren't precise measures of the effect of speed cameras, and city officials say they saw improvements around some previously dangerous intersections when cameras were operating there. Nonetheless, it would behoove city officials to make careful study of the practices in other jurisdictions in Maryland and elsewhere that have demonstrated safety improvements with their speed camera programs and to replicate them on a small scale here. If the program is about safety, not revenue, as the mayor has repeatedly said, then it shouldn't be a problem to radically downsize it until the city can prove that it can be operated nearly error-free.

A task force appointed by the mayor issued a report this summer suggesting substantive reforms to the program, including tighter guidelines for where the cameras can be placed. The city should use those proposals as the basis for a newly designed, small-scale system, and it should seek new bids to run it. That means a loss of anticipated revenue from the cameras, and likely further losses related to the break-up with Brekford. But that is the price Baltimore needs to pay for a speed camera program that the public can trust.


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