Sun Investigates

City official worried in July speed camera problems could 'get out of hands'

City transportation officials were so worried four months ago about inaccurate speeding tickets coming from an automated camera on Cold Spring Lane that a supervisor ordered the problem fixed before it could "get out of hands," documents obtained by The Baltimore Sun show.

Yet the camera remained in operation, continuing to record erroneous citations. And it was only last month that the city said it was investigating the source of the errors.


Meanwhile, evidence emerged Tuesday of problems at another speed camera miles away. The Sun determined that a camera on Walther Avenue in Northeast Baltimore ticketed a Toyota sedan for traveling 56 mph, even though time-stamped photos and a measurement of the pavement show it was moving 34 mph, not fast enough to warrant a $40 ticket.

The developments come amid renewed scrutiny of Baltimore's speed cameras, with the city employing a new "reasonableness" test of the tickets' accuracy, a top transportation official saying he lacks confidence in the cameras' radar and continuing calls to shut down some cameras temporarily while problems are investigated.


The Sun's findings bring to three the number of city speed cameras with documented inaccuracies, and the city says it's also investigating a fourth camera, in the 3800 block of Greenspring Avenue.

Chris Gilligan, a spokesman for the city's speed camera contractor, Xerox State & Local Solutions, said the government and the company are conducting a comprehensive review of all 83 speed cameras in the city. "We believe the system-wide error rate is below 1 percent," Gilligan added.

Nonetheless, critics of the speed camera program renewed calls Tuesday for some cameras to be shut down until the errors are explored and the breadth of the problem is determined, an idea that has also been advocated by some City Council members.

"These issues are obviously widespread and not limited to one or two specific cameras," said Ragina Averella, a member of a task force formed by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to review the city's red-light and speed camera system.

Councilman Brandon Scott introduced a resolution this week calling for an investigative hearing on the city's speed camera program.

"We want to have DOT [ the Department of Transportation] come before us and tell us how they're addressing these erroneous tickets and make sure they're not happening moving forward," he told fellow council members at a lunch Monday.

Both the city and Xerox, a unit of the office technology company Xerox Corp., have said the erroneous speed readings on Cold Spring Lane were limited to trucks. "Now we're seeing it's obviously an issue with cars," said Averella, public and government affairs manager for driver-advocacy group AAA Mid-Atlantic.

Asked about the Walther Avenue camera, city Transportation Department spokeswoman Adrienne Barnes issued a statement saying the agency "takes any possible camera errors seriously" and "will do everything possible to prevent technical equipment errors and ensure the program continues to improve traffic safety in Baltimore."


Barnes also said the city and Xerox are "continuing a rigorous investigation of the Cold Spring location and additional measures have been put in place to eliminate potential errors pending the results of the investigation." The Sun has documented an erroneous ticket at that location as recently as Nov. 15.

The city's lucrative network of radar-equipped speed cameras was the subject of a recent Baltimore Sun investigation that found some citations are inaccurate and that city judges routinely toss out tickets logged by cameras across Baltimore because of various deficiencies.

Since the cameras were installed three years ago, motorists have paid the city around $40 million in fines. More than $10 million of that has gone to Xerox, which gets a percentage of each fine. The city has issued more than 1.6 million citations, which under state law go only to vehicles found driving at least 12 mph over the speed limit.

As early as Feb. 7, the city was aware of a problem with the camera on eastbound Cold Spring Lane near Poly-Western at Grand View Avenue. That's when a manager with Utz Quality Foods complained about a citation he didn't think was accurate. The city checked with Xerox, and a company official wrote back the same day to say he too did not think the listed speed was right.

On July 13, the city received a similar complaint from Houff Transfer Inc. of Weyers Cave, Va. Its director of safety and risk management, Alan Caviness, wrote the city to question whether one of its drivers had been going 70 mph on Cold Spring, as alleged.

"We have a real issue with our driver if in fact he was going that speed," Caviness wrote in an email.


Raj Sharma, an engineering supervisor with the Department of Transportation, replied: "Please be assured we will investigate this matter and get back with you."

Six minutes later Sharma forwarded the email from Caviness to two Xerox officials, adding that "this is a concern and we need to resolve it before it gets out of hands."

"We have already supplied the information of several citations with similar issue of erroneous high speed being recorded at Coldspring and Grand View, which is very difficult at this location," Sharma wrote in the email. The Sun obtained the email from Ron Ely, editor of the anti-speed camera blog StopBigBrotherMD. Xerox officials confirmed its authenticity, and Caviness confirmed his dealings with the city.

Barnes said Tuesday that Sharma's comment about "several citations" referred to seven.

In an interview Caviness said he would have fired the driver "in a heartbeat if I knew he was going that fast."

"It's a big responsibility driving a tractor-trailer and being accused of that type of speed," he said. "You've got an 80,000-pound missile."


Caviness says he always doubted the 70 mph citation was correct. For one thing, that truck has a device called a governor that keeps it from going faster than 65 mph. The city voided the ticket, he said.

According to Barnes, the city has received 19 requests to review tickets from the two Cold Spring cameras near Poly-Western. Eight were voided, five denied after review and six are pending. That represents just 0.2 percent of the 8,827 citations issued there since February, she wrote.

Barnes said the two Cold Spring cameras have recorded more than 11,000 instances of "unlawful speeding ... which is deeply troubling as the location is immediately adjacent to two large public schools."

"Sadly, hundreds of thousands of motorists are speeding in school zones throughout the city," she wrote. "It's dangerous, and we have an obligation to make our streets safe."

Among the thousands of citations Barnes mentioned was one issued to Daniel Rogers on Feb. 1 while he was on his way to a painting job. The citation alleged that he was going 63 mph, but The Sun determined – using two time-stamped photos from the camera and measuring the distance traveled on the pavement – that his car's actual speed was 27 mph.

Like many motorists, the Parkville resident simply paid the $40 rather than take what he figured was his only other option — challenging it in court. "I just started a new job after I got this ticket," Rogers said in an interview. "The amount of money I would lose fighting the thing would not be worth it."


As part of its new "reasonableness test," the city says all citations issued at Cold Spring Lane will be checked to make sure the photos match the radar.

Since the city is concerned with the safety of students at Poly and Western, Averella suggested officials post a police officer at Cold Spring to give out more expensive speeding tickets that carry points, while at the same time eliminating errors from the speed cameras.

"There are traditional enforcement actions that can be taken," Averella said. "The cameras are not humans and they can be prone to significant error."

Evidence of an erroneous ticket on Walther Avenue suggests the problems aren't limited to Cold Spring. Last month, Russell Wheatley got a ticket in the mail that said he had been speeding south on Walther at Glenmore Avenue the afternoon of Oct. 25.

"My initial reaction was, that can't be right," he said in an interview. "Going over it some more, I'm looking at these pictures, thinking, that definitely doesn't look right."

Wheatley is unemployed, "so $40 is a lot to me." He's also an engineer, and he used his training to scrutinize his citation, reaching a conclusion similar to a separate review by The Sun: He was not driving anywhere close to 56 mph.


He has contested the ticket.