Thursday, August 6, 2015

Montgomery County Finally Acknowledges "Processing Errors"

More than three months after we originally asked Montgomery County to explain the cause of "processing errors" reported to us by motorists, Montgomery County has finally acknowledge that the case was not isolated to a single citation and that in fact 123 alleged speed camera violations needed to be voided after a speed camera located on River Road was improperly configured.

The incident was first reported to us by a motorist who had requested that Montgomery County's "Local Designee" review a citation she had received on a day in March 2015 when her car was nowhere near Montgomery County. The Local Designee declared the citation was legitimate.   However a few days later, that motorist received a form letter void notice for the citation, which was dated EARLIER than the local designee's response.

On April 23, we asked Montgomery County's "Local Designee" to provide an explanation for the cause of the processing error.  This was not answered.  On June 5 we repeatedly asked the local designee to explain the cause of the processing errors, among other questions, but the Local Designee never provided a response to that, despite a legal requirement that the local designee respond to questions or concerns "withing a reasonable period of time" according to state law.

On June 22 we sent Montgomery County a public information request for records about voided citations, including .  On July 30, 8 days after the legally required time limit for responding to public information act requests, the county sent a response that confirmed 123 violations needed to be voided from March 28 through March 31, when a camera had been improperly configured.  "GM All, Per our conversation on Wednesday all events n March28 to March 31 will need to be voided due to tech entering wrong date (123 violations)." stated an email provided by the MCPD.  Daily setup logs from March 18-April 1 were also part of the request, but no calibration logs dated 3/28, 3/29, or 3/30 were included in the responsive documents.

However our MPIA request had actually been for records of all voided citations from March 18 to the date of our request, and the county ONLY provided records pertaining to this single event.  We have received information that other citations were voided in this time period, and informed the MCPD that we considered their response incomplete for that reason --- and have requested that they also provide records of voided "processing errors" which they did not already know we were aware of.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

College Park Speed Camera Revenues Surge

Excerpt of revenues from College Park budget
The City of College Park's gross speed camera revenues increase by more than a million dollars over the previous year's level, according to the city budget.

In FY2014, College Park had brought in $1,529,721 in speed camera funds.  The city had budgeted $1,600,000 for FY2015, but announced actual revenues of $2,695,065 in FY15 in the city's requested budget for FY16.  This amounts to a 76% increase in revenues in a single year.

This money is divided between the city and their contractor, Optotraffic, who receives a percentage-cut bounty off of camera revenues.  Optotraffic saw their piece of the action increase from $596,591 in FY14 to $1,051,075 in FY15.

The revenue increase was due to the the fact that Speed limits on a portion of Rhode Island Avenue were lowered by 5 mph and the city deployed three new speed cameras.   College Park also began issuing citations 24/7 and on weekends due to a specific exception which permits them to run speed cameras outside school zones.

The city's total general fund revenues were reported to be $13,507,069.  The city's $1,643,990 cut of speed camera ticket revenues constitutes approximately 12% the amount of general fund revenues.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Montgomery County ATEU Defends Culture of Secrecy

The Montgomery County Automated Traffic Enforcement Unit (ATEU) has vigorously objected to criticisms that the program lacks transparency.
These criticisms were raised by a report published by a Speed Camera Task force instituted by the Greater Olney Civic Association.  This report made several observations and recommendation regarding the county's speed camera program, and may be the closest thing to an independent review of the program that has ever taken place,

The GOCA report noted that "Olney Speed Limits were lowered prior to introduction of Speed Cameras", and noted the high proportion of speed camera citations issued in and around Olney relative to the rest of the county.  However most of the task force recommendations revolved around issues of transparency.

Citizens Advisory Board Closed To Citizens
The GOCA task force raised objections regarding a "Citizens Advisory Board on Traffic Issues" (CAB-TI) which reportedly reviews and affirms new speed camera locations.  The task force noted that there is no documentation as to how the CAB-TI members are selected.  The task force noted that the only way to contact the CAB-TI is by requesting a new speed camera location, there is no documented way to object to a speed camera location or provide any sort of public input or complaint.

There has not been an attempt to appoint a CAB-TI with balanced views of the camera program; instead, the members appear to be strongly pro-camera, consistent with the views of the ATEU itself.  In discussion, the CAB-TI representative informed the Task Force that it could recollect objecting to only one camera placement during the tenure of the current CAB-TI.  

The ATEU also had an Ombudsman position in the period leading up to 2014.   The Task Force expected the Ombudsman to be a liaison between the community and the camera program, representing concerns of the community and individual citizens with the program, individual citation
problems, etc.  However, the Task Force found the original Ombudsman to be a full-time County employee in the ATEU, specifically a ATEU contracting official on the Xerox camera contract.

and further noted that neither the so called "ombudsman" nor the CAB-TI operate independently from the ATEU.

The task force recommended:
Montgomery County should revise the Citizen’s Advisory Board for Traffic Issues (CAB-TI) applicable to the speed camera program, ensuring the Board is selected independently of the MCPD and ATEU, has established term limits, represents the full spectrum of views on the efficacy of speed camera usage, and that its views shall be considered by the ATEU. 
and
Montgomery County should appoint, fully independent of the MCPD,ATEU, and Local Designee, a Citizen’s Advocate to represent the citizens and communities regarding speed camera use, placement, and other concerns.

The automated Traffic Enforcement Unit responded to the task force by objecting to the GOCA report, including all findings and recommendations regarding transparency.

The ATEU's response objected to this recommendation with respect to the CAB-TI and Ombudsman, stating that "the Report’s findings with respect to transparency in decision making are flawed":
"the Traffic Division (like other MCPD directorates) consults an informal advisory board comprised of residents who bring varied perspectives to the table, but who lack personal agendas to either expand or contract the speed camera program.  Their participation is unique among similar programs in Maryland, and it helpfully informs the Traffic Division’s judgment.  However, the deliberative process surrounding the selection of speed camera locations like the processes for determining where and when other law enforcement operations will be conducted is not public, nor should it be."
Public Documents show that the CAB-TI was created in 2006 by the MCPD Director of Traffic, and the county website shows that the CAB-TI reviews locations where new speed ccameras would be deployed -- presumably with the intention of leading the public to believe that locations are selected in consultation with the public.  However there is no published information about who the members of this Citizens Advisory Board are, how someone would contact them with a complaint  or pertinent information, or when their meetings take place.  The Maryland Drivers Alliance contacted the Montgomery County Traffic Division Director and asked for the minutes of CAB-TI meetings, and was told that none were kept.

In June, the Maryland Drivers Alliance filed a complaint with the Open Meetings Compliance Board, to determine whether the CAB-TI might fit the definition of a "public body" under the open meetings act.  The office of the county attorney has thus far responded with a nine page reply to the complaint, essentially confirming the material facts in the complaint (regarding the authenticity of public documents citing the CAB-TI's function and creation, and confirming that no minutes were kept), but asserting that the Open Meetings Act does not apply to them because "The upshot is that the Citizens Advisory Board - Traffic Issues" is not recognized as an advisory board that functions as part of the County Government.  The county attorney's office -- which employs a total of 48 taxpayer funded attorneys -- has requested an extension of an additional 30 days to compose a longer response to why the open meetings act should not apply too the CAB-TI, rather than simply using their resources to make the CAB-TI more transparent and representative of all citizens like the name "Citizens Advisory Board" implies.

CAB-TI Not the Only Secret Meetings
Montgomery County's ATEU has been involved in other secret meetings besides the CAB-TI.  In December 2013, Captain Tom Didone organized a "speed camera symposium" which included members of speed camera programs from across the state.  Included in the agenda were discussions of speed camera errors and upcoming legislation.  A co-sponsor of the event invited the Maryland Drivers Alliance to send an observer to the event.  However Captain Tom Didone forbid our representative entry, citing the fact that we oppose speed cameras as the reason.  The press was also forbidden to observe the event, which was co-sponsored by the Maryland Association of Counties(MACO) and the Maryland Municipal League(MML) --organizations which lobby on behalf of local governments -- largely at taxpayers expense.

In 2013-2014 Captain Didone and at least two other members of the Montgomery County ATEU also participated in secret legislative meetings that were part of what Didone referred to as a "Speed Camera Reform legislation workgroup" (a term also used in a MaCO press release to describe the group.  In fact, Captain Didone once asserted the position that portions of state law which he disagreed were "not fully informed" merely because he was not personally present at the time it was written.  In an email dated Wednesday August 27, 2014, Captain Didone wrote:
"When the General Assembly revised the law in 2009, they removed the paragraph that required the owner to identify the driver, if they wished to transfer the liability.  This provision was a mandate in the law that passed the 2006 General Assembly when Montgomery County was authorized to operate the first speed cameras in the State. This is why I used the phrase “Loophole” because by removing the paragraph, an issue was created that was not previously experienced.
Last year, when I worked on the Speed Camera Reform legislation workgroup, I was informed by staff that legislators voted to remove the “Squealer provision” as it was referred to when they revised the law in 2009.  It is my personal opinion that the legislators took this action without being fully informed of the consequences because they did not have the same workgroups as they did last year.  "
This workgroup, organized by former State Delegate James Malone, drafted speed camera related legislation passed in 2014.  We have since confirmed that the now former Program Manager and Captain Didone's deputy were involved in these work group meetings as well, as was the head of Prince George's County's speed camera program.  However opponents of speed cameras and the press were not permitted to observe these meetings.  The meetings were apparently held completely "off the books" -- with the Department of Legislative Services claiming to recognize no such workgroup.

Public Records Access Also At Issue
The GOCA Task force raised concerns that the County had been unable to produce certain requested information and had cited the fact that such information was maintained by their speed camera contractor, not by the county.  The task force made a modest recommendation:
Montgomery County should modify the speed camera contract to stipulate that all data captured on each citation shall be the property of the County, not the vendor, and that such data on citations, citation camera location, ticketed speed, etc. will be provided to the ATEU and published on the county website (protecting all Personally Identifiable Information (PII)). On several occasions the Task Force requested certain types of data but was informed the data being requested was maintained by the contractor (Xerox) in a proprietary data base and was not available

In their response, the ATEU stated:
"it is a matter of both practical and contractual necessity that the data generated by the Safe Speed program be maintained by  the vendor.  The County simply does not have the financial or human resources to perform the specialized data analysis that the Report seeks, and expanding the workforce to manipulate that data is a solution in search of a problem."

A circuit court previously determined that records of a speed camera program held by a contractor were public records that are subject to the Public Information Act in the case of "Ely vs Town of Morningside".

Montgomery County asserts that they county, not Xerox, "operates" the speed camera, and that the vendor does not substantially control the program.  However their response to the task force implies this is not truly the case, given that the county asserts it does not even have access to all program data and asserts that it doesn't even have the physical capacity to maintain or analyze information about the program.

This is not the only time issues have been raised with access to information about Montgomery County's program.  The editor of the Maryland Drivers Alliance sent  the Montgomery County "Local Designee" several questions on June 6 pertaining to speed camera errors, which the designee has as of today not responded to.  Because of this, we followed up with a Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA) request on June 22 for information relevant to those questions, and that request has also not been responded to as of today, even though the statutory time frame for responding to an MPIA request has elapsed.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Montgomery County FY15 Speed Camera Revenues Exceeded Projections

Montgomery County estimated speed and red light camera revenues which exceeded projections in FY 2015.  Montgomery County had projected $14.6million in speed camera revenues for FY2015.  Instead, the county budget estimated $16.7.  This placed estimated speed camera revenues at approximately the same level as they were in FY14.

The county also exceeded projected red light camera revenues by 5.8%.

Both revenue sources are very significant politically to the MCPD Traffic Division.  Speed camera revenues are the single largest revenue source in the MCPD budget, making up 37% of the total revenues the MCPD brings in.  What is more, excluding State Aid (ie money given to the MCPD by the state), speed camera revenues exceed all other revenue sources combined.  Speed camera revenues are 60 times the amount brought in by "fines and forfeitures" other than photo enforcement.   The approximately $20million brought in by speed and red light camera revenues is over 5 times the $3.5million brought in by licenses & permits, charges & fees, fines & forfeitures, intergovernment funds and "miscellaneous revenues".

Despite the fact that speed camera revenues are frequently advertised as being earmarked "for public safety", in fact the revenues are marked in the budget as "COUNTY GENERAL FUND", meaning the money is apparently co-mingled with other revenues.  Saying any particular source of money is spent on any particular purpose or project is like pouring a glass of kool-aid into the ocean and trying to scoop it back out.

The Maryland Drivers Alliance confirmed earlier this year that Montgomery County continues to pay a "bounty" of $16.25 per ticket to their contractor, despite claims by some that an amendment to state law passed last year would "end the bounty system."  Montgomery County had an amendment in their contract prior to the passage of that amendment which would have allowed them to automatically switch to a flat fee per camera if the law was changed to require it, however that clause has not been exercised.

According to an April 17 2014 article in the Sentinel, Montgomery County's Captain Thomas Didone told the county council that that amendment to the law -- which he and two other members of Montgomery County's Traffic Division were personally involved in writing -- would require few changes to their program.  In that article Didone stated that the law would permit a "Hybrid Lease",  Montgomery County created the loophole in the previous wording of state law intended to forbid contracts based on ticket volume, simply by not using the word "operate" to define what the contractor does even though that contractor provides and maintains the cameras, processes violations, substantially runs major portions of the program.  Since Montgomery County has asserted they are not required to change their current arrangement until 2017, the public has no way of knowing until then whether a future contract might not be a "flat fee" but rather include some "hybrid" arrangement which still compensates the contractor based on ticket volume and is claimed to satisfy the law simply by avoiding using certain words (just as they did in the past).

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Lidar Lie

After Baltimore City's disastrous speed camera program was forced to admit that their supposedly perfectly calibrated equipment had produced erroneous speed camera tickets due to what speed camera contractor Xerox referred to as "radar effects", speed camera using agencies desperately needed to find a new narrative to replace the platitude "if you won't speed you won't get a ticket".

One of the claims now made is that even though there were problems with speed cameras in Baltimore, that other speed cameras which measure speed with LIDAR cannot be wrong.  The implication that the device uses laayyyzeerrrs, which sound spacey and high tech, is supposed to lead one to believe the device cannot be wrong.

Because anything with lasers on it sounds cool
Of course, this is not true. It has been known for years that even devices which are properly calibrated can still be wrong due to external phenomenon.  One example of this is the sweep effect, something which has been known to exist and documented for years.



You see, in order for a hand held LIDAR device to work accurately, the beam must be held on a single point on the object being measured by the officer.  With a speed camera, the device tracks that point "automatically".  The assumption is that the machine does this correctly, and that it does this correctly every single time, in every single scenario, regardless of circumstances or external conditions, and that the beam will never end up "sweeping" from one point on the target to another which is a different distance away without this being detected.  Just like everyone assumed a radar device could not be wrong merely because it passed an internal calibration, and nothing outside the device could cause an error.... even though that turned out not to be true.

Certainly if you go to court, whomever represents the state will not acknowledge any knowledge of such phenomenon, even though they do have such knowledge, because testilying is a thing.  Rest assured the district court will always assume a device can never be wrong unless there is some very compelling evidence that it was wrong in your specific case... since in Maryland the concept of "reasonable doubt" is a privilege which applies only to career criminals, and not to ordinary citizens like YOU.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Speed Camera Companies Boosted Spending On Lobbying

Photo Enforcement Companies spent over $416,000 attempting to influence state legislators from May 2014 through April 2015, according to state ethics disclosures.

Speed Camera Company Xerox spent approximately $245,000 during this period to three lobbying companies.  Lobbyists from the firm Harris Jones & Malone was paid $55,000. $90,000 was paid to Gerard Evan LTD. Another $100,720 was paid to law firm Alexander and Cleaver to conduct lobbying.

(By odd coincidence, Alexander & Cleaver was also the law firm which represented the Town of Morningside in a dispute over access to public records filed by the editor of this website.  The attorney from Alexander & Cleaver argued that the town did not need to produce speed camera calibration records under Maryland's government transparency law because the program was run by speed camera contractor Brekford Corp.  Morningside lost that case.)

Prior to 2013, Xerox had been spending about $176,000 per year on lobbyists.

Xerox holds speed camera contracts with Montgomery County, Baltimore County, and the State of Maryland, as well as several municipalities.  The firm had been placed in an uncomfortable spotlight because they previously were forced to admit that speed cameras they ran under contract with the City of Baltimore were systematically issuing erroneous citations due to what the company referred to as "radar effects".

Speed Camera Contractor Optotraffic spent $47,788.84 on lobbying from 5/1/2014 through 4/30/2015 to the firm Rifkin, Weiner, Livingston, Levitan, & Silver.  This was almost the same as the $48,091 they spent in the previous year during this same period.

(Again by coincidence, Rifkin, Weiner, Livingston, Levitan, & Silver is the law firm which Optotraffic retained in a dispute between the Maryland Drivers Alliance and the Town of Brentwood, where Brentwood had delayed access to records about speed camera errors for four years.  Rifkin, Weiner, Livingston, Levitan, & Silver argued that Optotraffic should not have to produce records in response to a subpoena.  Eventually, after many additional months, documents were produced which showed that some erroneous speed camera tickets had been issued.... but only more than a year after the public records case had been brought to court and after the legislative hearing for which records had been sought to be presented at had passed).

Speed camera manufacturer Gatso paid $60,500 to the firm Greenwill Consulting Group during this period.  Gatso is a dutch owned company which produces the GS-11 radar speed camera which is used in several jurisdictions.  Gatso has attempted to get into the business of contracting directly for speed camera services, rather than merely providing hardware to other contractors.  It was announced last month that Gatso would be acquired by the Swedish firm Sensys AB, another speed camera manufacturer.

American Traffic Solutions paid lobbyists from Greenfield & Kress, P.A. a total of $62,000.  ATS is one of the largest photo enforcement companies in the US, and has tried to get into the speed camera business in Maryland but has so far been unsuccessful in capturing a major contract in this state.  It is possible ATS may be particularly concerned not only about speed cameras, but also about red light camera legislation.  In the last legislative session legislation was proposes which would have prevented red light cameras from being used issue tickets for slow moving right turns, a type of violation which now constitutes the majority of red light camera tickets issued in some jurisdictions.  That bill died in committee.

Lobbyists provide a way for firms to purchase influence in several ways.  First, lobbyists often make large donations to state lawmakers, which then appear under the name of the lobbyist rather than under the firm's name in campaign donation reports.  In addition, some lobbyists have established political connections.  For example one of the lobbyists retained by Xerox was Robert Garagiola, a former state lawmaker and former candidate for US congress who now works for Alexander & Cleaver.  Harris Jones & Malone is also extremely well connected, as demonstrated by the fact that the mayor of Baltimore City actually presided over the wedding of two senior partners in the firm.  In 2013 Harris Jones & Malone  made itself $285,000 for itself lobbying on various issues in Baltimore City alone.

Photo enforcement companies have been worried about legislation considered in the wake of the collapse of Baltimore City's disastrous speed camera program, and ensuring that no additional restrictions would be imposed beyond paper tiger rules passed last year.  That legislation was written by a secret legislative workgroup which included senior officials from agencies which run speed cameras, but opponents of speed cameras were not invited to participate.  One speed camera company declared victory in its press releases after that legislation passed, claiming that the changes in the "reform" bill would have no effect its existing contracts.

In addition, the election of a Republican Governor who had pledged to be more favorable towards motorists has likely raised concerns. During former governor O'Malley's term between November 2006 and October 2014, Xerox and ACS (the company Xerox acquired their speed camera business from) reported a total of $16,500 in campaign donations in Maryland exclusively to democratic candidates and organization.  This included 2014 donations of $4000 to Anthony Brown and $4000 to Ken Ulman, who were running for Governor and Lieutenant Governor.   However immediately after Governor Hogan's upset victory over Anthony Brown, Xerox made a $2000 donation to the Maryland Republican Party Central Committee in November 2014, and a $2000 campaign donation in January 2015 to Larry Hogan's Campaign Fund.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Takoma Park Police Officer Indicted In Road Rage Incident

A Takoma Park police officer has been indicted by a Prince George's County Grand Jury on charges of related to a 2014 road rage incident.

Prosecutors state that in July 2014 Officer Travis Ala, while off duty, was driving on Route 50 westbound in Bowie when he encountered an vehicle in the left lane.  Ala, according to prosecutors, swerved around the vehicle and pulled in front of it and applied his brakes.  A witness claimed that Ala then pulled a handgun and pointed it at motorists.

On Tuesday the grand jury indicted Ala on charges of first and second degree assault and the user of a handgun in the commission of a crime of violence.

Officer Ala was also involved in a separate incident in March 2015 involving a fatal traffic accident which killed three people.  A Toyota Corolla driving on Route 50 in Anne Arundel County was stopped in traffic when it was struck from behind by a vehicle driven by off duty officer Ala, who was driving in an unmarked police vehicle registered to the Takoma Park Police.  Three passengers in the Toyota were killed.

After the July 2014 incident Ala was temporarily placed on administrative leave, but was returned to duty when no charges had been filed after several months.  After the crash in March Ala was placed back on administrative leave and remains so at this time.  Maryland state police have stated they have not completed their investigation into the March crash.

Before these incidents, Officer Ala had previously been named "Officer of the Year" by the Takoma Park Police in May 2014.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Governor Hogan Announces New Funding for Roads

Governor Larry Hogan announced $1.97billion in funding for highways and bridges to fund 84 individual projects across the state.

Selected projects would include repaving 1,959 lane miles of highway, 25 safety improvement projects, 13 projects targeted to improve traffic flow, and repairs to 26 bridges.  When combined with previously allocated funds, the state would now have funds allocated to fix all structurally deficient bridges in Maryland.
“Today, I’m delivering on my promise to provide nearly $2 billion in funding to our highways and bridges across the state,” said Governor Hogan. “This investment not only will move long-awaited highway projects into construction, so that Maryland families and businesses will benefit from safer, smoother roads, but also it will address every single structurally deficient bridge in the state. Building, maintaining, and fixing Maryland’s roads and bridges is a top priority of our administration.”.
Among newly funded projects which had been identified as high priority by counties:

  • Widening MD 404 from two to four lanes with a median from US 50 to the Denton Bypass
  • Widening US 113 from two to four lanes with a median from Five Mile Branch Road to north of Public Landing Road
  • Upgrading US 219 north of I-68 and building a new interchange at I-68
  • Reconstructing the MD 175/MD 295 interchange to improve access to Fort George G. Meade
  • Re-configuring traffic lanes along US 50 eastbound over Severn River Bridge to provide an additional lane to reduce congestion
  • Upgrading the existing partial interchange at the Greenbelt Metro Station to a full interchange to support the proposed FBI headquarters.
  • Reconstructing US 1 to a four-lane divided highway with a median and bicycle/pedestrian safety improvements from College Avenue to MD 193.  
  • Widening Northbound MD 140 (Reisterstown Road) to add a third lane from Painters Mill to Garrison View Road.
  • Widening MD 2/4 to provide a third through lane and auxiliary lanes in each direction from north of Stoakley Road to south of MD 765A.
  • Improving the intersection at MD 5 (Point Lookout Road) and Moakley Street/Abell Street.
  • Reconstructing the I-270/MD 85 interchange to reduce congestion and upgrade structurally deficient bridges.
  • A $100 million "Innovative Congestion Reduction Project" on I-270 in Montgomery County from I-370 to the Y-split.  This was stated to include "peak dynamic shoulder use, bus on shoulder use, ramp metering and other proven technology based initiatives designed to reduce congestion."

These projects would all be slated to begin work by 2018.  See Fact Sheet on Planned Projects.

The governor also announced that the Purple Line project would move forwards, but balked at the original price tag and announced that the project would be made "more cost effective and streamlined", and the state's share of the project being reduced to $168 million.
“I have always said this decision was never about whether public transit was worthwhile, but whether it is affordable and makes sense,” said Governor Hogan. “In reducing costs here, hundreds of millions of dollars will become available for other important projects. Our administration promised to chart a new course for Maryland – one where economic development and jobs are our top priority. The Purple Line is a long-term investment that will be an important economic driver for our state.”

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Opinion: Drinking Does Not Make You Cool

This is a time of year where we tend to see too many stories involving teens leaving parties with underage drinking which have an all too familiar and tragic ending.  It is really sad that some still need to be reminded in this way....

 - Drinking does not make you grown up.  Acting responsibly makes you grown up.
 - Drinking and driving does not make you cool.  It makes you and your friends dead.  This may literally be the stupidest thing you do in your life.
 - A responsible person never gets in the car with a driver who has been drinking.
 - Your drinking buddy is not your best friend.  Your real friend is the guy at the party who isn't drinking who will get you home safely, or the person who takes your keys away because you are not fit to drive.
 - If you find driving to be "thrilling", you are doing it wrong.
 - A responsible driver does not start the car until all passengers are wearing their seat belts.
 - It is OK not to go to that party where underage drinking or drug use is going on in the first place.

Thank you.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Montgomery County Issued Erroneous Tickets

An investigation by the Maryland Drivers Alliance revealed that Montgomery County's speed camera program issued several erroneous citations in recent months by issuing  them to the wrong vehicle.  Meanwhile, Montgomery County's “Local Designee” failed to identify another confirmed erroneous citation and has so far refused to answer questions by the Maryland Drivers Alliance about the nature of this error.

Wrong Vehicles Cited In Multiple Instances
Evidence of the errors was uncovered in a Maryland Public Information Act Request which the editor of the Maryland Drivers Allegiance website filed with the county on April 17.  Included in the disclosed documents were several examples of acknowledged erroneous citations which Montgomery County issued between January and April of this year.

One motorist from Columbia wrote about a citation issued on Dufief Mill Road, where a small sedan had been mistaken for their SUV: “I only own a Black 2015 Ford Explorer, it seems the car in  the picture is a Ford Focus or similar vehicle”.

In another case, a motorist from Wilmington Massachusetts wrote “I received a citation number [####], the vehicle and license plate imaged are not mine.”

A  motorist from Parksville wrote “Please look at the vehicle in the photo, It appears to be maybe a blue or grey car maybe a Camry or something like that.”.  The motorist stated that their car was a bright Orange Prius, thus looked nothing like the vehicle in the image.

A fourth motorist from Washington State wrote “ I just got this letter of citation which isn't about my car, let alone didn't travel there at that time.  Mine is a Lexus IS and not the Lexus P---, there is no way you an be mistaken with the number if carefully looked at the pictures.

In each of these four cases the county's representative responded to acknowledged the citations had been issued in error,


Local Designee Failed to Spot “Processing Error”

Another motorist, whose complaint to the Maryland Drivers Alliance prompted our investigation, had received a citation dated March 20 2015 located at 10700 block of River Rd eastbound.  The motorist had written to Montgomery County's “Local Designee” asserting that it was impossible for her vehicle to have been in Montgomery County on that date.   However in this instance, Local Designee David McBain rejected her appeal. (In addition to being the "local designee", McBain is the Deputy Directory for the Traffic Division and second in command over the speed camera program after Captain Tom Didone, and thus has managerial responsibilities in the speed camera program).


However a few days later, the motorist received a void letter from Montgomery County which was dated four days BEFORE the local designee's response (presumably initiated by the county's contractor).  “After further review, it has been determined that the citation should be administratively voided due to a processing error.” stated the void letter dated April 10.

In fact the vehicle shown on the image was NOT in Montgomery County on March 20, 2015.  The recipient had multiple forms of evidence showing this could not be the case, and also noted to us that the weather shown in the image did not match the weather conditions on March 20.

The Maryland Drivers Alliance surmised that the speed camera might have been improperly configured with the wrong date, and wished to determine whether there might have been other “processing errors”.  We wrote to the “local designee' on April 23rd asking “whether you have investigated whether other citations issued from this speed camera dated between 3/19/2015 and 4/1/2015 may have contained erroneous information.  If not, I request that you please investigate whether this device was improperly configured during some portion of this time period.” and requesting that if other “processing errors” existed that they be voided as well.  We also asked that the nature of the “processing error” be explained.

We received no immediate response, and prompted the county again on May 5.  On May 6 Local Designee David McBain replied in an email “I will be responding to you tomorrow in the hopes that it will satisfy your request. ”.   However we still received no response to our questions on May 7th..  On May 15, we received  an email from the county stating that both our MPIA would be answered the next day, but there was no answer to tee questions we had asked the Local Designee.  The following week we received the response to our MPIA.  The documents did contain documents confirming that the designee had received the particular motorist's complaint, that an email from the “local designee” rejected the appeal AFTER the date on the void letter had been sent, and that the void letter was dated before the Local Designee's response.  However the response did NOT include an answer to our questions as to whether the local designee had investigated whether there might have been other “processing errors' from the camera located at 10700 Blk of River Road eastbound at the end of March.

After examining the documents and giving the county some additional time to answer the questions, we we repeated our questions to the local designee on  June 5.  The Maryland Drivers Alliance has yet to receive answers to our questions about this "Processing Error".


“Ombudsman” Denied Defendant's Request for Discovery of Records.
Documents received from the county also show that the County's Local Designee   denied a request for records made by a ticket recipient.  The motorist wrote in an email "If it is in the government's decision to move forward in this matter, I would request copies of any evidence the prosecution may have of my involvement in the "offense", and also asked for all maintenance records for the camera(s) involved."  One motorist requested.

Montgomery County's “Local Designee” refused the request to release records in advance of the hearing, arguing that“"Because the automated speed citation is not a criminal matter, the Automated Traffic Enforcement Unit is under no obligation to provide you with discovery of "records.


We note that the individual had not used the word "discovery" and had requested access to records, as ALL individuals are entitled to do under state law.  The Maryland Drivers Alliance has since sent a complaint to Montgomery County, noting that the county had improperly denied this defendants request for records.  Our complaint to the county stated:
Whether or not discovery is explicitly required by the constitution is irrelevant because the MPIA requires you provide a person in interest with access to records.  I refer to the Section 4 paragraph 1 of the MPIA manual on the OAG website: "A request expressing a desire to inspect or copy agency records may be sufficient to trigger the PIA’s requirements, even if it does not expressly mention the words “Public Information Act” or cite the applicable sections of the State Government Article."  and "An agency need not and should not demand written requests for inspection of agency documents when there is no question that the public has a right to inspect them. "  Moreover, FAIRNESS requires that a person is entitled to obtain records that would be used in a case against them.  The constitution might specify some BARE MINIMUM amount of rights the state can ever provide to a defendant under the law under any circumstances, but in Maryland the MPIA provides additional rights to a person in interest.  Furthermore, fairness demands that the county not withhold information from a defendant regardless of whether this is more than the bare minimum rights of discovery the constitution requires. 
The Local Designee position was presented to the public using the term "ombudsman", a term which Captain Tom Didone used it in his testimony to the legislature (but Montgomery County has since denied that they use this term in writing several times).  The term "ombudsman" would imply the role was intended to serve as some sort of independent agent who would ensure the fairness of the system, and the fact that Didone used the term in his recorded testimony to the legislature implies this was what the public was led to believe was the intent.  An "ombudsman" should not be looking for legal reasons why they should not need to honor a request for records by a ticket recipient.  ...

The Maryland Drivers Alliance awaits a response to our complaint.


Other Complaints Rejected By Local Designee

The Local Designee received several other complaints, some of which alleged speed measurement errors.  The Designee denied every single instance of a speed measurement error.  The documents provided in response  contain insufficient information for us to evaluate the individual complaints.

In several  cases, the designee was presented with a “time distance calculation” asserting that the speed measurement was in error.  In one case McBain  “I received your email where you were attempting to calculate a time-distance formula from the photographs that are provided in the citation.  Based on you calculations you believe you were erroneously issued an automated speed citation. “  McBain then asserted that the only purpose of reviewing citation images was to confirmed that parked vehicles had not been ticketed.  ”Vehicle Progression is the only thing that can be accurately detected when reviewing two photos and is  to sufficient to prevent parked  vehicles from receiving speeding citations when a proper review is being conducted”.  In this instance, McBain then proceeded to assert the citation was valid without presenting a time-distance calculation of his own.

However in another case, a motorist presented a time distance calculation based on the information on the citation, which showed a timestamp that had been rounded off to the second, thus not providing the accurate time interval.  In that case the local designee presented his OWN calculation, based on the time interval the device had recorded but which the county deliberately excludes from citations,  for the purpose of REFUTING the calculation.  "Utilizing the formulat D/T then converting FPS to MPH we can Verify the speed your vehicle was travelling.  As such: 14.961/0.239=65.598 FPS; 65.598x0.681818=42.680mph"  wrote Traffic Department Deputy Director and Local Designee David McBain when and only when it suited the county's purpose for math to be used to verify speed.

We previously reported that training documents created by Montgomery County's speed camera contractor, Xerox, demonstrated the use of time-distance calculations for the purpose of VERIFYING speed, not just determining whether a vehicle was stationary or not.  Those errors included stationary vehicles receiving citations, but also other errors where a vehicles were proven and admitted to have been cited for going much faster than their actual speed while they were still in fact moving.  Local governments, particularly Montgomery County, STRONGLY opposed any changes to the law which would have required citations to contain enough information to allow verification of speed.

In another case, the Local Designee stated that the presence of another vehicle directly adjacent to the car did not constitute a possible cause of “Radar Effects”.  Radar extends out in a “cone” shape, and cannot distinguish the speeds of different vehicles directly next to each other.

In another case, McBain stated that there was no indication of anything which could cause “radar effects” in the image.  It is unclear how this determination could be made with certainty in a case such as that  one where the images were taken at night, and objects that might have cause interference were  not illuminated.

Baltimore City's speed camera program was shut down after the city and their contractor (Xerox) were forced to admit that "radar effects" (using Xerox's term) had caused speed measurement errors.  Xerox is also the vendor for Montgomery County.  Independent reviews and audits performed in Baltimore have since revealed that such errors were widespread, and also that inappropriate practices were followed in issuing contracting.  Montgomery County strongly opposed any changes to the law which would have created independent audits or outside oversight of the sort which have taken place in Baltimore since the time of the admitted errors.

Local Designee Asserted Logs Containing Defect Were Valid
In the documents disclosed under our MIA request, McBain asserted that all of the camera logs he examined were valid.  Several of the daily setup logs which the Designee stated were valid were similar to the following:

Which showed that the “operator” “Signed” a step which was BLANK.  In every instance where such a defect existed in the log, the “local designee” did not consider it to be "invalid" that either the log does not accurate representation of the procedure being signed for, or else that camera “operators” are systematically signing for a step which was not performed.   There is no indication that defendants who requested review were provided copies of the logs so that they might have spotted the defect themselves prior to a court hearing so that they might use that information to prepare their defense.

Have you received an erroneous citation, an inadequate response from a "Local Designee", or did you receive a citation from a speed camera located at 10700 Blk River Rd e/b between March 19 and March 31 which might have contained an error?  If so, please assist our investigation by CONTACTING US.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Baltimore Releases New Report on Photo Enforcement Program Failures, Moves to Restart Cameras

Baltimore City has completed a new report on the failures and problems with their Speed and Red Light camera programs.

Baltimore City's speed and red light camera programs have been shut down at the end of 2012 after revelations that the city's speed cameras had systematically issued tickets to motorists who were not speeding.  Contractor Xerox admitted that at some sites five percent of tickets issued were actually speed measurement errors, and a later independent audit found that as many as 10% of citations were due to apparent errors and should not have been issued.  These admissions were prompted by an extensive investigation by the Baltimore Sun, which revealed that stationary cars had been ticketed for speeding and documented the problem to the point where it could not be denied.  The Maryland Drivers Alliance had published speed camera videos and images showing large trucks apparently moving far slower than the speeds they had been accused of.  Emails obtained by the Maryland Drivers Alliance in 2012 showed the city had been aware speed camera tickets had been issued based on erroneous speed measurements months before the city finally took the cameras offline and the problems were publicly admitted.

The report examined over 10,000 documents.  They did note however that a single investigator had been assigned to the task, and funding for the investigation was cut off in January 2015.  Over 200 requested documents were "unreadable" due to what the Law Department called a "software glitch".  Furthermore the remaining "millions" of documents the Law Department stated existed were not produced, and investigators stated they had insufficient time to examining them.

The investigation primarily looked at contractual issues and the actions of the city's contractors and some city employees, rather than the technical causes of erroneous citations.

The report discussed how after Xerox lost the contract with the city to a new vendor, Brekford, Xerox did not assist Brekford by supplying software needed to operate the city's existing cameras.  "The committee noted that Xerox made things worse by it's continued course of conduct during the fall of 2012.  It clearly wanted to maintain control of the system despite having lost the contract to Brekford.  In its negotiations with Brekford, there is evidence not only of this attempt to maintain control but also to reap the vast majority of the bounties then available under the contract."

"The documents that were reviewed also contained allegations that Xerox deliberately sabotaged City property.  A number of them point to an alleged tampering event in which Xerox technicians made two camera units inoperable on the last day of the contract.", stated the report, however the report claimed the allegations could not be confirmed since the law Department failed to produce additional documents related to the alleged incident.

The report discussed how the city's new speed camera contractor Brekford sought to have Richard Retting, a photo enforcement expert responsible for many of the studies the industry uses in support of photo enforcement, hired to conduct a supposedly "independent" safety review.  Retting has been closely associated with Brekford Corp, and Brekford has described Retting as a "Brekford AGTE Partner" in corporate presentations.  The report referenced an email exchanged between Brekford CO C.B. Brechin and Retting stating "Great news, we were able to get the City of Baltimore to hire you separately so it looks independent... Again thanks for all your service."   The report stated "the choice of words in the email leads one to question the propriety of this hire."  Investigators stated they forwarded this to the City Solicitor for investigation but never received a response.

The report showed how the city was more concerned with the perception of errors than the actual fact that some motorists would be falsely accused.  "The real challenge will be getting the media to accept that, while the city is doing everything we can to improve the accuracy rate, the system will not be perfect and some (very small) percentage level of error may still occur,"  program manager Jamie McDonald wrote in a March 14, 2013 email.

The report recommended that the city implement a smaller program, and the Mayor is moving ahead with an RFP to obtain bids for a new contract.

Some state lawmakers who voted for speed cameras apparently also believe that the public should accept a certain rate of erroneous citations.  So called "reforms" implemented under changes to the law passed in 2014 by the state legislature explicitly states that an error rate of up to 5%, one ticket in 20, is acceptable before a contractor would be penalized.  For a program the size of Montgomery County's existing program or Baltimore City's previous program, this would permit tens of thousands of erroneous citations per year.  Errors have been proven and/or alleged in many other local speed camera programs in the state aside from Baltimore, however no other program has been subjected to the type of detailed audits that Baltimore's program has.  Local governments in the state strongly resisted calls for speed camera programs to be subject to regular independent audits and state lawmakers refused to include any form of auditing or independent outside oversight in so called "reform" legislation, and the sponsors of the 2014 legislation refused to include any such requirements.

Xerox has speed camera contracts for programs in Montgomery County, Rockville, Gaithersburg, Chevy Chase, and Baltimore County, and is also the vendor for the SHA's program.  Brekford holds contracts for several municipal programs in the state including Salisbury, Greenbelt, Laurel, and Hagerstown.

Additional Coverage
Baltimore Sun: City Council Report Blasts Speed Camera Program
TheNewspaper.com: Baltimore, Maryland Looks To Revive Traffic Cameras
CBS Baltimore: Baltimore Looks To Relaunch Speed Camera Program

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Lawsuit Challenges "Ombudsman's" Qualifications

Attorney Paul Layer has filed suit in Montgomery County Circuit Court, alleging that the Local Designee (aka "Ombudsman") selected for Montgomery County's speed camera program failed to comply with a transparency requirement of state law and furthermore does not meet the requirements to hold the position.

The "Local Designee" position was created in 2014 under a bill which amended the state's speed camera law.  Among the requirements of the position was that records of complaints be kept on file and be made available to inspection.  On February 20, 2014, Mr Layer requested access to such complaints issued during the month of January 2015.  "Local Designee" David McBain responded that they had received 14 requests for citation review.  "However, on April 6, 2015, Local Designee McBain again contacted Petitioner, by telephone and e-mail, informing Petitioner that Assistant Montgomery County Attorney, David  Stevenson, instructed him NOT to provide the 14 requests previously identified by Local Designee McBain as responsive to Petitioner’s request. " wrote Layer in his petition to the court.  Layer had specifically agreed to the redaction of any identifiable information from the records.    The county responded that they would only provide the documents if Layer re-entered his request under the Public Information Act.  This would have, among other things, allowed the county an additional 30 days to delay providing the documents even though more than a month had already elapsed, and permitted them to charge fees or claim specific exemptions to disclosure under the MPIA.  The petition requests the court provide a "writ of mandamus" requiring that McBain release the documents under article 21-809(b)(1)(ix)5.

Layer further noted in his petition to the court that the state law provided that “[a] local designee may not be employed by a speed monitoring system contractor or have been involved in any review of a speed monitoring system citation, other than a review of a citation under this subparagraph.”  David McBain is the Deputy Director of the Montgomery County Traffic Division, and is second in command to Captain Tom Didone who runs the Traffic Division and thus the automated traffic enforcement division.  McBain thus has supervisory control over the automated traffic enforcement division whenever Captain Didone is unavailable.  The complain alleged that McBain thus does not meet the qualifications to serve as local designee because a supervisory role necessarily makes him involved in the review of citations: "Upon information and belief, and as provable after further discovery, Local Designee McBain has been, and continues to be, “involved in any review of a speed monitoring system citation, other than a review of a citation under [MD TRAN 21-809(b)(1)(ix)].”  Consequently, Local Designee McBain’s designation as Montgomery County’s “local designee” violates MD TRAN 21-809(b)(1)(ix)3." stated the complaint.  The petition requests the court provide a "writ of mandamus" requiring that McBain be removed from the role of local designee.

David McBain and his superior Captain Tom Didone were personally involved in the informal "workgroup" which wrote the reform bill creating the "Local Designee" position, having affirmed that Delegate James Malone called them into meetings to discuss the legislation (to which opponents of speed cameras were not invited). In testimony to the legislature Captain Didone used the term "Ombudsman" to describe the position, a term which implies a degree of independence.  The Maryland Drivers Alliance has been critical of the so called "reform" measure, with our position being that what was required was OUTSIDE oversight and/or scrutiny, and that local governments would merely assign the "ombudsman" role to an existing employee within the program who would act to defend the agency's policies rather than scrutinizing them,  Since the act went into effect, Montgomery County has disavowed the use of the term "ombudsman" in writing several times.

Edmunston Police Chief Charged with Malfeasance

Prince George's County has charged the police chief of the small town of Edmunston with two counts of malfeasance while in office after an investigation by WTOP News.

The WTOP investigation alleged that Police Chief Stephen Walker improperly voided a parking ticket issued to the town's mayor.  A group calling themselves Edmonston Residents for Change also began circulating fliers accusing the chief of corruption and improper acts while in office.  However prior to the charges the city council voted 3-2 to keep chief walker in his position.

The WTOP investigation also found that the police chief had been issued a set of untraceable confidential license plate tags (aka "ghost plates").  Such plates are normally only used for undercover investigations, but the vehicle in question was equipped with emergency lights and extra antennae which would seem to render it impractical for undercover work.  Such ghost plates would render a vehicle immune to photo and parking tickets, since the registration would be untraceable, however it's unclear whether any tickets were actually avoided in this manner.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Maryland Cuts Toll Rates

Governor Larry Hogan announced that first time in 50 years tolls will be lowered in the state.

The Maryland Transportation authority approved toll reductions on Thursday which would take effect on several roads, bridges, and tunnels across the state.

Chesapeak Bay Bridge would drop from $6 to $4 for those paying cash, or from $5.40 to $2.50 for EZPass users.  The Harry Nice Bridge toll would drop from $5.40 to $4.50.  Rush hour tolls on the ICC would be reduced from 25 cents per mile to 22 cents, and outside rush hours overnight drivers would see tolls drop from $0.17 per mile to $0.07.  Tolls for the Baltimore Harbor and Ft. McHenry tunnels would be reduced as well.

The state would also eliminate the $1.50 EZPass monthly maintenance fee.

Between 2009 and and 2014, tolls collected on existing facilities (ie not counting tolls collected on the new ICC) rose 75%, according to an analysis of MDTA financial documents by the Maryland Drivers Alliance, due to several large toll increases.

“These back-to-back massive toll hikes meant struggling Marylanders faced more to go to work every day, and they also had to pay more for family trips to the beach as they crossed the beautiful Chesapeake,” stated Governor Hogan.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

A Year After Speed Camera “Reform”, Bounty System Contracts Alive and Well

A year after state lawmakers and other snake oil salesmen told the public that legislation passed in 2014 “ended the bounty system”, most local speed camera programs have yet to make any changes to their contracts to end the practice of paying contractors based on ticket volume.

The Maryland Drivers Alliance took a poll of nine local governments to see whether their contractors were paid a cut of each ticket a year ago, and whether there has been any change.  Not one of the agencies we asked responded that their payment terms had changed.

County/Municipality Contract Terms a Year Ago Contract Terms Today
Montgomery County $16.25 per-paid citation $16.25 per-paid citation
Prince George's County 37.5% of each $40 fee. “The parties agree to the maximum fee as allowable under state law"37.5% of each $40 fee. "The parties agree to the maximum fee as allowable under state law"
Baltimore County $18.95 per paid citation $18.95 per paid citation
Rockville $16.25 per-paid citation $16.25 per-paid citation
Gaithersburg $16.25 per-paid citation $16.25 per-paid citation
Takoma Park <$16.25 per paid citation, plus a $0.25 processing charge, plus $2 “convenience fee” charged to citizens$16.25 per paid citation, plus a $0.25 processing charge, plus $2 “convenience fee” charged to citizens
College Park 39% of revenue resulting from payments of Citations 39% of revenue resulting from payments of Citations
Salisbury Thirty-five percent (35%) of monthly collections Thirty-five percent (35%) of monthly collections
Laurel 40% of revenues 40% of revenues


Montgomery County Did Not Exercise Existing Flat Fee Contract Option
Montgomery County's representative confirmed  that the county's contract included a clause which was to have permitted the county to immediately switch to a flat fee if the law was changed.  "In the event that the applicable law changes to prohibit the per paid citation compensation formula, the County will compensate the Contractor as follows in lieu of any amount provided in Section III.A. and Section III.D. above".  The alternate payment terms, which Montgomery County has not chosen to switch to as of the date of our inquiry, would have been a flat fee per month per camera.  The county's response confirmed that this clause was NOT exercised after the reform bill went into effect, and that their per-ticket “bounty system” arrangement with Xerox continues unchanged.

Meanwhile, the city of Laurel confirmed that they had extended their existing contract terms in may of 2014, a month after “reform” legislation was passed.  The “reform” bill included a loophole which allowed local governments until 2 months after the bill was approved by the legislature to “grandfather in” new contracts.  We had previously reported how one speed camera contractor hadd boasted in their press releases about having locked in new long term agreements and that as a result the reform bill would not affect them.


Laurel's Slow Response To Simple Questions
The City of Laurel took a total of 33 days to provide a reply to a few simple questions.  We send the request to the city on February 27.  They acknowledged receipt of the letter we sent.  On March 2nd, we asked the city “Please confirm receipt of this email and provide the direct contact information for the "local designee" so that I can ask them how long until I can anticipate a reply."  The response was   “Your e-mail was forwarded to the City Solicitor’s office for a response” and gave the name “John Shay”, who is an attorney working for the firm Bennan McKenna Manzi Shay.  After several follow up inquiries to Mr Shay, to which we received short acknowledgements, we were told on March 24th that “I will have a response in the next day or two “.   It was not until April 1 that we got a response, which indicated that it was not Mr Shay but rather Leutenant John Hamilton who was “local designee” (aka “ombudsman”).  Thus the city had not forwarded our request to the “local designee” as we had asked, and instead subjected it to a 4 week long legal review.

Takoma Park also told us our letter needed to go through “legal review” before it could be answered.


Is This an “Ombudsman”?
The term “Ombudsman” is generally defined to mean “”a commissioner who acts as independent referee between individual citizens and their government or its administration”.  So are the selected people in any sense independent or objective?

We inquired of some agencies who was their “local designee”, a position which some have referred to as an “ombudsman”.  The City of Rockville acknowledged that their “Ombudsman” is Michael England, the commander in charge of the program.  “The Photo Enforcement Unit has been under my command since 1 July 2013.” wrote England.

The City of Gaithersburg, meanwhile, appointed their chief speed camera operator as “Ombudsman”.

Takoma Park stated that their “local designee” was “Ms Cannatella”, whose responsibilities included “Daily Deployment of each camera”.  However our letter addressed to the “Local Designee” and asking for a reply specifically from that person, was not responded to by Ms Cannatella, but rather by Captain Tyrone Collington, the commander in charge of the program.

Laurel stated their "local designee" was previously a speed camera operator, and was given the new title of Local designee in September 2013 (the statute creating that title had not been passed until 2014).  A quick google search for the individual's name indicated he has held the role of the community policing and traffic unit supervisor in the past.

Montgomery County repeated that they do not use the term “Ombudsman” to describe their local designee, a statement they have made to us at least twice in the past.  Montgomery initially assigned the program manager Richard Harrison as the "local designee", but now the position apparently belongs to the programs's deputy director Lieutenant David McBain, (both of whom answer directly to Captain Tom Didone, the director and most stalwart defender of all aspects of the county's speed camera program).


Will they ever change?
A few local governments indicated that they were required to change their contract terms by June of 2017, and a few indicated that they were “required to move to a flat fee”.  However in previous instances Montgomery County has stated in the past that they were looking at “hybrid leases” or “tiered systems”.  It's unclear whether such alternate arrangements might still be based on ticket volume without using the term "per ticket"... an won't be until after such arrangements are actually signed.

It is worth noting that the bounty system was supposed to be banned under the original language of the law, present when the state's speed camera statute was first passed (based on the fiscal policy notes of the bill and statements by former council member Phil Andrews).  However Montgomery County proceeded to invented the loophole which lets them pay on a per ticket basis.  In fact Ike Leggett publicly stated that "Under the contract, we pay a flat fee", when in fact they had a per-ticket contract, shortly before the details of the arrangement became generally known to the press.  So we might be forgiven for not accepting assurances now that they will eventually adopt a flat fee, given that public officials lied about this in the past.

"Reform" Legislation Crafted in Secret Meetings Which Excluded Camera Opponents, Public, and Press
The Maryland Drivers Alliance identified the language in last year's "reform" bill that could be used to continue paying based on ticket volume forever before the bill was even passed, but the legislature ignored our concerns.  In fact, last year's reform bill was drafted by an informal “Speed Camera Reform Work Group”, the existence of which was acknowledged in an email written by Montgomery County Captain Tom Didone dated August 27, 2014, : "Last year, when I worked on the Speed Camera Reform legislation workgroup, I was informed by staff that legislators voted to remove the “Squealer provision” as it was referred to when they revised the law in 2009.  It is my personal opinion that the legislators took this action without being fully informed of the consequences because they did not have the same workgroups as they did last year."  The Maryland Association of Counties also referred to this group in a press release: "During the 2013 Session, the House Environmental Matters Committee formed a  stakeholders’ workgroup...".

Montgomery County's new local designee confirmed that Delegate James Malone organized the group's "off the books" meetings in a letter dated April 6, 2015 "Delegate Malone would hold meetings to discuss the HB 929 and invite people to attend and participate into the discussion.  Mr. Harrison, Major Liberati and I were, along with others were invited to participate.  This was part of his legislation process and I am unaware of any minutes, agendas or other information."  Mr Richard Harrison was the program manager from Montgomery County's speed camera program, and Major Liberati is the head of Prince George's County's program,  They were apparently intimately involved in meetings to write the reform legislation which allegedly "ends the bounty system", opponents of speed cameras were not.

Monday, March 30, 2015

National Camera News: Two-Faced Triple-A's Failed Attempt to Bring Speed Cameras to Indiana

The Indiana branch of Insurance Company AAA launched an unsuccessful lobbying campaign to bring speed cameras to another state.

We reported some time ago how "AAA Hoosier" had expressed on their website that "the AAA Hoosier Motor Club will focus its efforts on supporting legislation that would allow for the use of speed enforcement cameras in construction zones, school zones".   Last year the organization stepped up its campaign in favor of photo enforcement by promoting a series of news articles and editorials supporting legislation which would have introduced speed cameras to the state.  The bill also authorized cameras on school bus stop arms, and advocating for that portion of the bill was largely used by proponents to distract from the speed camera element of the bill.

In an editorial on NWI.com, AAA's spokesperson Greg Seiter plead for the legislature to pass the photo enforcement bill.  "The issue isn't driver privacy, government intrusion or motorist inconvenience. House Bill 1404 is about preventing injuries and saving lives."

House Bill 1404 would have put speed cameras in highway work zones, similar to the ones used in Maryland.  However the Indiana bill which Insurance Company AAA supported would have had $300 fines, which would have escalated as high as $1000 after multiple violations.  The bill explicitly permitted "bounty system," paying contractors a 25% cut of each ticket, which in other states (including Maryland) AAA has claimed was a conflict of interest.  The bill Insurance Company AAA supported also contained a presumption of guilt by explicitly stated that "There is a rebuttable presumption that the owner of a vehicle that is the subject of a recorded image was operating the vehicle when the image was recorded" -- a presumption which is in fact not true in many cases.

The National Motorist Association, the only nationwide organization to defend motorist rights, wrote a counter-editorial to Insurance Company AAA's.  The NMA's John Bowman argued that "Speed Cameras won't live up to safety promises" and that "putting speed cameras in highway work zones will do little to protect workers since only around 14 percent of work zone fatalities involve workers and many of these are caused by construction vehicles or other non-traffic related causes, according to the U.S. Department of Labor."  "The purpose of all camera-based traffic enforcement is to enrich the for-profit camera companies and their business partners: the public officials who become addicted to the easy revenue cameras provide" Bowman stated.

Barnet Fagel, a Chicago based video forensic expert and NMA advocate, argued  “Where’s the due process? Who’s the person who’s going to testify in court against you, the camera?”  Fagel also noted "Even the finest cameras are subject to error; cosine angle factor error and operator error. I’ve had one (case) where a car was on the back of a tow truck being towed, and the driver was exceeding the speed limit. And, the owner of the towed vehicle got the ticket because that’s the license plate that was most readily seen"

HB 1404 passed an Indiana state house committee in February.  The bill seemed poised to pass. However an alliance of liberal and libertarian delegates began to question the bill's provisions, and lawmakers pulled the plug on the bill.  According to the NWITimes :
A unique coalition of limited-government Republicans and liberty-loving Democrats united in opposition to Soliday's idea of authorizing the state or a local government to deploy cameras in road construction areas that would snap photos of speeding motorists 24 hours a day, even if no workers were present, and send tickets demanding fines of up to $1,000 for repeat "  and "State Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington, who noted his agreement with Washburne 'is kind of an ACLU meets Tea Party moment,' said he doesn't want Indiana to become like many other states where speed cameras are loathed.  
“It’s a slippery slope,” said Rep. Mike Speedy (R-Indianapolis) during last week’s Roads and Transportation Committee hearing. “Once it starts in the construction work zones, that becomes a rationale to expand it and expand it, and then, where does it stop?”
"This kind of automated enforcement really turns people against their government," Pierce said. "I think it breeds contempt for government."
A letter the Maryland Drivers Alliiance sent to AAA's Greg Seiter in February about the bill went unanswered.  It's unclear whether AAA Hoosier will attempt to promote a similar bill again next year.


The Truth About Triple A
AAA describes itself as a motor club, and claims to advocate for motorists, sometimes publicly going on TV to advocate for ticketed motorists.  However AAA is one of the largest sellers of insurance in the US, collecting over $2billion in insurance premiums per year.  AAA has an intimate relations with the auto insurance industry: "The Auto Club Group" (AAA) is a member of the insurance industry group IIHS, and in the past a representative of AAA has even chaired the IIHS.

Some of AAA's other positions, which many motorists and AAA customers oppose, have included arguing in favor of a VMT (Vehicle Mileage Tax) in Idaho, and advocating an increase in the federal gas tax, and supporting an increase in the state gas tax in Virginia.  AAA Mid Atlantic's Lon Anderson took credit for getting statewide speed cameras passed in Maryland and for getting red light cameras reintroduced in Virginia.  Anderson also stated to the Gazette that AAA was trying to get speed cameras for Maryland years before we actually got them.

AAA Publication Promotes Nation Wide Use of Speed Cameras
A research paper published by AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety asked that the federal government should "Encourage states and communities to use automated enforcement as appropriate".  The paper recommended that "All states should permit automated enforcement using speed cameras and should encourage and support communities in using automated enforcement in appropriate situations."   The paper literally promotes the idea of using less unpopular forms of automated enforcement to create a "slippery slope": "Jurisdictions where the public may not be ready to accept speed cameras may wish to use red light running cameras first". 

Only 14 states currently allow speed cameras, and photo enforcement has been rejected in public referendums in most cases where the issue has been brought to the ballot.

Dump Two Faced Triple A
AAA often claims to be on the side of motorists, as a way of getting cheap PR.  But in our opinion, their positions are inconsistent a members have little idea what they are really lobbying for, and motorists certainly cannot rely on them to speak for us.  The Maryland Drivers Alliance Recommends that all those who want to protect their legal rights dump their AAA membership and join another organization which consistently supports motorist rights.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Anti-Motorist Committee Kills Speed Camera Repeal, Reform Bills

The House Environment and Transportation Committee voted down four bills that would have reformed aspects of speed and red light camera programs, while approving a bill which would authorize a $500 photo-ticket for a third type of photo ticket.

Committee Voted Down Repeal of SHA Speed Cameras
The Environment and Transportation committee voted down a bill which would have ended the SHA's speed camera program, with a 17-2 Vote.  See Vote Count Here

The National Motorists Association (NMA) had supported the bill, noting in their testimony that over half of workzone accidents are actually caused by worker's own equipment.  The NMA also noted that "A 2012 legislative audit of the Maryland State Highway Administration’s speed camera program found that the state’s “SafeZones” program had failed to adequately test the equipment and that the state flouted its own law regarding a requirement that speed cameras be independently certified.  It’s clear that poor administration of the state’s various speed camera programs has led unfair treatment of countless motorists and represents a violation of the public trust."  The NMA is the only nationwide organization dedicated to protecting motorist rights.

The Maryland Drivers Alliance also supported the legislation, stating in written testimony:
We believe that violations of people's legal rights for the sake of revenue and expediency are intrinsic to the nature of automated enforcement.  The lack of oversight and lack of transparency on speed camera programs make abuses in this system inevitable. The legislature knows there have been abuses.  From the beginning, Maryland's speed camera program was born in fraud, deception, and shady deals.
With reference to the SHA's failure to independently calibrate their own equipment and follow their own procurement rules, confirmed by a 2012 SHA Audit,  we noted that "Some say the SHA's program is a “model” speed camera program.  We say yes, they are a model, and that's the problem.  Local governments followed the SHA's example and did the exact same thing."

We also noted that under the previous administration the SHA opposed any and all efforts to reform Maryland's speed camera law with respect to their own program.  "The word “accuracy” does not exist anywhere in the calibration requirements in Maryland's speed camera law.  Nor does state law require equipment to meet any nationally recognized standard.  This is what turned Maryland into a beta test site for buggy, unproven speed cameras.  NO you did NOT fix that gaping flaw in the law last year."



MaCo Takes Credit For Killing Speed Camera Audit Bill
A bill that would have required audits of speed camera programs, such as the audit which proved that Baltimore City's Program had a 10% rate of erroneous tickets, was voted down amid strong opposition from local governments.

The idea of requiring audits was strongly opposed by local governments such as Montgomery County, which are terrified that errors will be proven in their own programs if they are forced to accept independent oversight or review.

The Maryland Association of Counties (MaCo), a collective lobbying tool for county governments, opposed the audit bill, and MaCo's spokesperrson Les Knapp trumpeted their success in killing it on their "ConduitStreet" bog.  The Maryland Association of Counties (MaCo) lied in their testimony to the legislature regarding the audit bill, claiming that "The audit requirement would require a local government to take down it's speed cameras and ship them to a qualified laboratory to be tested" which would have shut cameras down for an extended period of time every four months.  In fact this testimony by MaCo's Les Knapp was completely false, since the bill contained no requirement that hardware be examined or shut down at all.

The other reason MaCo gave for opposing the bill, was that the legislature had rejected the bill in previous years, largely because MaCo and local government which profit from speed cameras had opposed it then as well.

YOUR county's representative on MaCo's legislative committee can be found here.  We note that ALL members of MaCo's legislative committee are culpable in MaCo's activities to limit the legal rights of motorists at public expense, either by their action or by their inaction.


Local Governments Opposes Even Trivial Protections Of Motorist Rights
MaCo, an opaque organization which is funded in large part by your tax dollars, also opposed legislation which would have required the "local designee" (sometimes incorrectly referred to as "ombudsman") to be approved after a public hearing.  MaCo's primary reason for opposing the legislation was "the General Assembly has already considered and rejected the notion of requiring a
local governing body’s approval of the ombudsman", a decision the General Assembly made largely because MaCo opposed the idea of any and all outside oversight of local speed camera programs.

The Maryland Drivers Alliance had written testimony in favor of the bill, noting that "the “local designee” role created by HB929 last year does not currently function as a practical means of addressing public concerns nor does it function as a meaningful “ombudsman” by any commonly held understanding of the term."  We pointed out that selected Local Designees are not independent or objective, since in some cases the heads of speed camera programs had been appointed as "ombudsman".

In fact the bill which created this role in 2014 was actually written by a secret "Speed Camera Reform Work Group", which met in private without notifying the public, taking minutes or agendas, and which included MaCo and the heads of large speed camera programs (particularly the heads of Montgomery County and Prince George's County's speed camera programs") but that opponents of speed cameras were not included or even informed that the work group existed.  The existance of the Speed Camera Reform Workgroup was confirmed by correspondence from MaCo and from the head of Montgomery County's speed camera program, but the Department of Legislative Services claims that they have no minutes, agendas, or records of public notice for the group's meetings.  Thus the entire effort of "reform" conducted in 2013 and 2014 was actually a demonstration of exactly what was wrong with speed camera programs in the first place: too much secrecy and no willingness to listen to the pubic.

"If the legislature is truly serious about reform, and serious about openness and transparency, then what you really need to do is start over and do it right.  Amend this bill to create a new “speed camera reform work group” which includes members appointed by the governor, and which is subject to the open meetings act.  No more secret speed camera meetings.  Engage with the public, and with the opponents of speed cameras – not just those who believe the system is fine -- and hear out the reasons why we have problems with the current system for real this time." -- we wrote in our testimony.

The Environment and Transportation committee ignored this plea and unceremoniously killed this bill as well.


Senate Passes Meaningless Placebo Version of Local Designee Bill
A version of the local designee bill did pass the senate, however only after it was amended to remove the requirement for hearings.   The requirement for a hearing was the only part of the bill which had any practical effect, and removing that provision entirely defeats the purpose of the bill -- providing a small element of outside oversight and transparency in order to ensure a local designee is in fact an independent "ombudsman" rather than someone with a vested interest in keeping a local government's problems secret.

It has yet to be seen whether the Environment and Transportation committee will vote down the amended bill as well (which they might as well do at this point), or approve it and promote a meaningless farce of a bill which actually does nothing.  The View of the Maryland Drivers Alliance is that this is essentially what the legislature did in 2014: write a bill designed to keep existing practices in place, which was written by the heads of speed camera programs, and pass it off as "reform" to a public which they believe to be too uneducated to know better.


Montgomery County, Rockville Had 1 Million Reasons to Oppose Right Turn Camera Bill
The Environment and Transportation Committee also killed a bill which would have ended the practice of ticketing vehicles for slow moving right turns from a right turn lane.

The bill was strongly opposed by Rockville and Montgomery County, each of which stood to loose approximately $1Million per year in photo ticket revenues if they could no longer issue tickets for vehicles making right turn on red where right turns are allowed.

Rockville, in particular, has only ten red light cameras, but saw their red light camera revenues more than double after deploying cameras optimized for ticketing vehicles which were making right turns without a 100% complete stop, or which in some cases vehicles which did make a full stop but slightly ahead of the white line.  Some cameras, positioned to capture images turning from a right turn lane, saw more than a factor of ten increase in tickets after the new ticketing practice was put into effect.  The fiscal policy notes for the bill also indicated that "Montgomery County advises that it may no longer allow red light camera enforcement in right lanes under the bill, which may result in a loss of roughly one third of citations and more than $1 million annually, unless offset by greater enforcement of other lanes in other locations."

Opponents of the bill asserted, without providing proof, that the measure would increase dangers to pedestrians.  A report from the NHTSA on right turn on red noted that right turn on red had an extremely small effect on safety. "Right-Turn-On-Red crashes represent a very small proportion of the total number of traffic crashes in the four states (0.05 percent). RTOR injury and fatal crashes represent a fraction of 1 percent of all fatal and injury crashes (0.06 percent). RTOR crashes represent a very small proportion of signalized intersection crashes (0.4 percent)."  The report further noted that "less than 0.2 percent of all fatalities involved a right-turning vehicle maneuver at an intersection where RTOR is permitted " while further noting that some of these accidents actually occurred when the light was not red for the turning vehicle at all and that the actual numbers are even lower than this would indicate.

This bill was supported by the National Motorists Association, which asserted in their written testimony "The question of whether or not rolling right turns present a safety hazard was answered in a study conducted in 2011 by Safer Streets L.A. (www.saferstreetsla.org), after analyzing nine years of crash data in Los Angeles. The study concluded that accidents attributed to such maneuvers accounted for only .08 percent of total accidents in the city, and the chance that a rolling right turn would result in a collision was .0003 percent. In addition, a separate review of US Department of Transportation statistics found that an average motorist could drive a billion miles -- the distance from Earth to Jupiter and back -- before being involved in an accident that resulted from a rolling right-hand turn (thenewspaper.com/news/26/2693.asp). The bottom line is that rolling right turns present little, if any, safety hazard."

Committee Approves $500 Photo Ticket
The Environment and Transportation Committee id allow one photo enforcement related bill to go through, a bill which would set a precedent for fines of up to $500 for automated enforcement tickets by raising the maximum fines for "school bus monitoring system" tickets from $250 to $500.  The bill's sponsors presented this as being necessary because there were too many people passing school buses.  Montgomery County have been issuing only about 5 tickets per camera per month in their first nine months their school bus cameras were in operation.  By comparison, the City of Rockville's red light cameras issued approximately 200 citations per camera per month at the end of 2013.  Given that the cameras are issuing only 1/40th as many tickets as a red light camera would, either the county or their vendor or both would be unable to turn a profit off of these these cameras given the current fines.  In general local governments will not continue photo enforcement programs which do not produce revenue over the long term.

The law regarding school bus monitoring systems contains fewer protections for the legal rights of defendants than speed cameras do.  The fines of up to $500 would be issued to the owners of vehicles, rather than the drivers, who would be forced to "admit guilt" in passing a school bus (since courts in Maryland have determined that paying a fine is an admission of guilt) if they were unable to identify the driver.  This is despite the fact that in some cases the driver may have been unknown, and despite the fact that under courtroom rules of evidence a person can in general only testify to facts they personally witnessed.

By comparison, when the now-chairman of the Environment and Transportation Committee Kumar Barve was arrested for drunk driving he received a "PBJ" (probation before judgement) and was required to pay a fine of only $200 for a type off violation which kills thousands of innocent motorists, pedestrians, and children every year.  DUI cases are handled by the much stricter standard of "proof beyond reasonable doubt", and the proof must show the person accused was personally responsible.  The court in such cases is not permitted to accept unauthenticated evidence against the accused, and the right to face a human accuser is protected.  On the other hand, photo tickets of the sort which Barve's committee approved are judged by the standard of "beyond reasonable doubt" and a person can literally be found guilty even if there is evidence proving they were not present at the time of the offense.  The state can present evidence against the accused, and there is no provision in the statute for the defendant to face the operator of the device or any specific human accuser,

The burden of proof spelled out in the current law regarding school bus monitoring systems is so low that it does not actually require the device to collect evidence which proves the vehicle actually passed a bus.  In fact the word "passing" does not even appear in the statute which authorizes school bus monitoring cameras.  For example, it is technically illegal in Maryland, under the statute the cameras enforce, to come to a full stop closer than 20 feet from a school bus.  Red light cameras were re-purposed to ticket for slow moving right turns after they had been in use for several years, and the legislature merely needed to do nothing in order for that practice to continue expanding.  While the bill sponsors repeatedly refer to it as being about passing school buses, there is absolutely nothing in the bill which prevents the cameras from being re-purposed in the future to ticket for such technical violations other than actually passing a school bus, including those of a sort which literally never cause traffic fatalities.  Local governments will now have a $500 per ticket incentive to begin doing exactly that.

Of course the public has gotten the assurance from politicians these cameras won't be used in this way (someone did promise you that didn't they?), so obviously there is nothing to worry about.  Because if you can't trust politicians who can you trust?