Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Insurance Industry Proves Accident Rates Declined Equally With or Without Speed Cameras

An Insurance Industry Group is claiming that a study on Montgomery County's speed camera program shows the benefits of speed cameras, even though that study found no difference in accident rate reductions on roads where speed cameras were added compared to roads in a control group without speed cameras.

The study by the Insurance Industry for Highway Safety (IIHS) compared roads in Montgomery County eligible for speed cameras (generally roads with speed limits of up to 35mph) to a set of roads in Fairfax County with comparable speed limits (25-35mph).

The study also wanted to prove the existence of "spillover effects", by comparing a set of roads in Montgomery County with 40mph speed limits to a set of roads in Fairfax County with comparable speed limits.  Data from 2004 through 2013 was examined.

Speed Camera Roads No Better Than Control Group On Accident Rate Improvements
The study showed that accidents rates declined by almost exactly the same amount in ALL FOUR groups from 2004 to 2013, both in the categories with speed cameras and without them.  The percentage decline in accidents was the same in the Montgomery County roads with speed cameras to Montgomery County roads without speed cameras, and was also equal to the decline in accidents in both categories of roads in Fairfax County where speed cameras are not allowed.
Raw Data from IIHS report
Annual Reported Accidents as a percentage of Baseline Year Rate


Speed Cameras May Actually Have Been Worse Than Nothing
It is worth noting that overall accident rates in the study declined between 2004 and 2006 at a similar rate to subsequent years even though Montgomery County's speed camera program was not even in effect until mid 2007.  This had the effect of allowing the IIHS to attribute declines in accident rates to speed cameras which took place before the cameras were deployed.  Had 2006 been used as the baseline year rather than 2004, the result would have been that Fairfax County roads would have seen a larger decline in accidents than Montgomery County.

Comparing the average accident rates from 2004-2006 to accident rates from all of 2008-20013 would have shown that Montgomery County roads fared 5.8% worse than Fairfax County: Accident rates on speed camera roads declined by 21.1% compared to a 26.9% decline on non speed camera roads in Fairfax county.  The "potential spillover" roads in Montgomery County also showed worse results than the control group in Fairfax, with 40mph roads in Montgomery seeing a 12% decline compared to a larger 17% decline on 40mph Fairfax county roads.

The decline in accidents overall is not surprising given that there was a NATIONWIDE 21% decline in traffic fatalities between 2005 and 2009, largely attributed to safety improvements in vehicles such as anti-lock brakes.  Americas roads are in generally substantially safer than they were in 2004, despite the fact that only a 15 states use speed cameras at all, and most states which permit them use them in far fewer locations than Maryland.

The fact that accident rates had improved no more in Montgomery County with speed cameras than in Fairfax County without them was completely left out of the press reports which they provided to media organizations.

Study Made No Effort to Consider Alternative Solutions 
The IIHS study specifically excluded roads from the "control group" where alternative traffic calming measures were applied with at least one Fairfax County road where speed bumps had been added excluded.  Thus no comparison between the use of speed cameras to the application of traffic calming measures was attempted by the study.

The IIHS study concluded that average traffic speeds declined on roads in the study where speed cameras were used, but this effect is comparable to speed reductions which other studies have found to be produced by alternative traffic calming measures such as "radar speed display signs" which do not issue citations.

(Radar speed display sign study links:
http://trrjournalonline.trb.org/doi/abs/10.3141/1973-06
http://www.bellevuewa.gov/pdf/Transportation/2005_Radar_Report.pdf
http://www.westerntransportationinstitute.org/documents/reports/4W2174_RadarWarrants_FinalReport_2011-04-07.pdf
)

And while the study had attempted to prove the presence of "spillover" reductions in traffic speed, no significant effect was observed.  Average traffic speeds declined only 4% on non-speed camera roads in Montgomery, an amount easily attributable to increasing traffic congestion over the past ten years, with comparable roads in Fairfax County showing a 3% decrease in speeds.

The IIHS study also included a push poll survey which concluded that the majority of Montgomery County residents support speed cameras.  However the actual most common response was actually non-participation, since only 9% of those called actually completed the IIHS's survey.  The results from the IIHS poll seem markedly different from the results of a poll conducted by WTOP in 2012 where 64% of DC area respondents believed the primary role of speed and red light cameras is to generate revenue.

IIHS Made No Effort To Examine Possible Negatives of Cameras 
The study by the IIHS, a group which represents the insurance industry, made no effort to examine whether there were any complaints, concerns, or problems with  Montgomery County's program.  As such it seemed to ignore the possibility that any legitimate issues of fairness, integrity, profiteering, or other concerns might exist.  Among the issues NOT examined by the IIHS study:
  • Montgomery County invented the "Bounty system" (paying contractors a cut of each citation), and they still have a bounty system today despite promises by lawmakers to "end the bounty system", and despite having a clause in their contract that would let them switch from a bounty system to a flat fee.
  • The Montgomery County ATEU has a STATED preference for conducting secret meetings.  Even their so called "citizens advisory board" meets in secret, keeps no minutes, and gives no public notice of meetings.
  • Local speed camera programs, including Montgomery County, issue erroneous speed camera tickets on a regular basis.  Elsewhere in Maryland, Baltimore City's program was shut down when it was revealed they had issued thousands of erroneous citations because of false speed readings due to "radar effects".  Why did the IIHS not examine Baltimore's utterly failed program, which was run by the same contractor which runs Montgomery County's?
  • They ticket people who were not the driver, and Montgomery County has fought with every means they have to keep the burden of proof on the accused in such cases.
  • They have adopted speed cameras as the first choice for every traffic safety problem, to the exclusion of other traffic engineering solutions.  When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
  • Defendants have been denied the right to confront their accuser in court, even those who requested the camera operator testify. 
Supporters of speed cameras call Montgomery County a "model program".  In  our opinion, the problem is that this may be true.  When Montgomery County breaks promises made to the public other jurisdictions follow suit and double down on it.

Insurance Industry: Put Your Money Where Their Mouth Is
The correct conclusion from the IIHS study should be that our roads are getting much safer without speed cameras, and that better alternatives exist for controlling speeds where that is needed.  The lack of examination for possible negatives of speed cameras proves that the insurance industry does not care about and integrity of our justice system.  Unfortunately the Insurance Industry believes that it is in their financial interest to diminish people's legal rights such that people accused of traffic violations are presumed guilty and have no defense -- even to the point where individuals can be accused and found guilty of offenses that happened when they were not even present.  And while the insurance industry advocates for the use of speed cameras, jurisdictions such as Maryland and DC which have adopted them in far greater proportions than the rest of the US pay much more for insurance than the national average.  Maryland and DC are the 11th and 3rd most expensive locations for auto insurance respectively.  A fair answer to the IIHS's conclusions would be that the auto insurance industry should put their money where their mouth is and lower Maryland's insurance rates.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Montgomery Never Voided Tickets Issued With Skipped Calibration Tests

For several years, Montgomery County routinely issued speed camera citations on days where a basic requirement of the law for daily calibration logs was not met, yet refunds were never issued after this fact was disclosed.

We previously reported in 2010 that Montgomery County did not have daily setup logs for numerous days where citations were issued for many of their speed cameras. State law required the following:

"(3) A speed monitoring system operator shall fill out and sign a daily set–up log for a speed monitoring system that:
(i) States that the speed monitoring system operator successfully performed the manufacturer–specified self–test of the speed monitoring system prior to producing a recorded image;
(ii) Shall be kept on file; and
(iii) Shall be admitted as evidence in any court proceeding for a violation of this section."

We had hoped that Montgomery County would do the right thing and refund citations which had been issued when this basic calibration requirement – a requirement intended to protect the public from faulty speed cameras readings – was not met. However that never happened, and Montgomery County instead chose to keep the loot.
Sure enough the documents provided showed that NONE of the dates we requested in 2009 or 2010 had actual daily setup logs which met this requirement.  This included a date in September four months after our report on this issue and after the Washington Examiner reported this issue.... a time period which should have been more than adequate for Montgomery County to change their procedures.

When the press first discovered this fact, the county's reaction was one of total contempt for the law. Captain John Damesky, who headed the county's speed camera program at the time, responded to the Washington Examiner "We're not going to do this [test] every day. We're just not going to do that." --- denying that the county had an obligation to meet the clear wording of state law.  Montgomery County did eventually change their practices regarding how these calibration tests were performed, but only many months after the press became aware of the issue.  The dates when lapses were detected were primarily on weekends and holidays (since Montgomery County issues citations 24/7 at locations which are not inside school zones) but at the time it appears no speed camera operators were on duty to run required tests and fill out required logs.  

To follow up on this issue in June of 2015, a public information act request was sent to Montgomery County by a supporter of this site requested daily calibration logs for one camera located near Olney at 19600 Georgia Avenue northbound on the following dates: 9/6/2009, 10/31/2009, 11/28/2009, 12/27/2009, 1/3/2009, 1/03/2009, 1/31/2009, 2/14/2010, 4/3/2010, 5/30/2010, 9/5/2010, 5/18/2013. The requested dates included weekends when we were aware Montgomery County was issuing citations, but when we suspected they did not have speed camera operator on duty to meet that statutory requirement.  One more recent date in 2013 was included in the request for comparison purposes.

 Instead the county provided start-and-end calibration logs from other dates revealing that there were gaps in the calibration logs of several days.
Date Requested
Start Date of Log Provided
End Date of Log Provided
Gap in days
# Citations Issued on Date
9/6/20099/5/20099/8/20093112
10/31/200910/30/200911/03/2009415
11/28/200911/27/200911/30/2014360
12/27/200912/24/200912/28/2014463
1/3/200912/31/20091/4/2010437
1/31/20091/29/20102/1/2010321
2/14/20102/13/20102/16/2010329
4/3/20104/2/20104/5/2010340
5/30/20105/28/20106/1/2010477
9/5/20109/3/20109/7/20104(ie NOT "daily")44
5/18/20135/17/20135/18/20131 (ie "daily")40

The public information act also include a request for records showing how many of the citations issued were refunded or voided. The county responded to this that portion of the request “There has been no administrative voiding or refunding on the referenced dates above”.
In addition to having logs for numerous days missing, many of the logs showed that the "operator" had "signed" to having performed a step in the setup procedure which was BLANK on the logs.  This apparent error existed in daily setup logs day after day, month after month, FOR YEARS, yet thousands of citations were approved for cameras with these defective logs without question.  The cameras were simply assumed to be in perfect working order, even though the logs themselves were not.

Other local governments have issued refunds for citations where annual calibration requirements were not met.  However Montgomery County went to court, at taxpayer expense, to support the principal that a speed camera program could not be sued for the refund of speed camera tickets that have already paid, regardless of the reason. As such, it currently appears that when it comes to a SYSTEMATIC issue with Montgomery County's speed camera, the rule they follow is “Once you have their money, never give it back”. The addition of a so called “Ombudsman” to Montgomery County's program (a term they have since rejected as describing the program's “Local Designee”), has not changed this at all, since it did not result in refunds for this potentially very large number of illegally issued citations.

Montgomery County may have succeeded in getting the legislature to write them a free pass on similar issues that may occur in the future.  In 2014, under the guise of “reform” to the system, the legislature passed a change to state law which modified the wording of the requirement for daily setup logs to instead say “(3)   A speed monitoring system operator shall fill out and sign a daily set–up log for a speed monitoring system that: (i)   States that the speed monitoring system operator successfully performed or reviewed and evaluated the manufacturer–specified daily self–test of the speed monitoring system prior to producing a recorded image;”.   This seemingly minor change removes the requirement that the person signing the logs actually perform the test, or witness that it actually took place.  This not only permits an additional level of “hearsay evidence” to be used against defendants in speed camera hearings, since the operators could testify to the results of tests which were performed when they were not even on duty.  Thus a local government could argue this change makes it legal to have one single "operator" push a button from a remote location to electronically "sign" all logs for a day without ever observing the camera itself. The legislation which enacted this change was part of the “speed camera reform act of 2014”, which was written by a speed camera reform legislative work group whose meetings included at least three members of Montgomery County's automated traffic division; opponents of speed cameras were not invited.

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.