Sunday, December 28, 2008

Darnestown Maryland Installs Blatant Cash Cow Speed Cameras

The Montgomery County "Safe Speed" program recently announced plans to install several new fixed location speed cameras. Some of these cameras have recently been activated on route 28 in the small town of Darnestown Maryland and have been placed immediately after signs reducing a 40mph speed limit to 30 mph.

The following photos, taken by a concerned Montgomery County resident, show the placement of the cameras with respect to the speed limit signs. Just west of Quince Orchard Road, the speed limit on rt 28 becomes 40mph. Just before entering Darnestown is the first 30mph speed limit sign, with one small "photo enforced" sign. Well under a tenth of a mile later is the new fixed speed camera (circled in image below, click for full sized image).

The two are close enough that both the camera and the sign can be photographed together, although brush along the side of the road might well conceal the cameras until a driver actually reaches them. A photo taken from the eastbound direction shows a 40mph sign just past the camera (circled in this image, click for full sized image).At the western end of Darnestown, the situation is even more obvious. When heading east on rt 28, the speed limit is 50mph, with no speed limit signs for over a mile, until about 2/3 of a mile before the speed camera location, at which point the speed limit becomes 40mph. The camera is placed IMMEDIATELY AFTER the only 30mph sign with a small "photo enforced" sign. The camera itself is partially obscured behind another sign. This picture shows how incredibly close the two were placed.

Viewed from the westbound direction, the 40mph sign can be seen (circled below, click for full sized image).

In neither direction are there any flashing yellows "Your Speed" indicator signs, rumble strips or other traffic calming devices to alert inattentive drivers, which one would expect if safety were the motive and the county wished to be sure drivers had every possible chance to react to the single speed limit sign before entering town. There are also no signs indicating a school zone. Note that these fixed speed cameras are designed to work 24/7, the cameras and signs would be much less visible at night.

The cameras were seen "flashing" several cars in a row, all of which seemed to be driving in what most people would consider a normal, safe manner. Because there is so little space between the signs and the cameras even someone who is fairly diligent about obeying speed limits could easily get "nailed" if they were to try to save gas by coasting down to speed instead of immediately hitting the brakes. However it is unclear whether they are actually issuing citations, as someone was apparently already so angered by the camera placement that they spray painted over the lenses of at least one camera. Speed cameras are frequently targeted by this and other forms of attack almost everywhere they have been used.

Two more Darnestown cameras are being constructed nearby on Germantown road (rt118). The fixed poles are located 0.2 miles east of the intersection with rt28 (where the speed limit is 40mph), and about 0.1 miles south of the first 30mph speed limit sign. North of the new locations the speed limit is 40mph. Worse yet, a driver (perhaps your visiting friend or relative) who knows nothing about speed cameras, coming south from 118 and turning east on rt28 could plausibly hit two cash-cow cameras right after another, then hit both cameras again in the opposite direction on the return trip.

Montgomery County is facing the prospect of a huge budget deficit in 2009, and council president Phil Andrews has proposed using speed cameras to fund various programs which the council had previously hoped to fund with a new ambulance fee. A minor dispute arose from this because the County Executive had already allocated the speed camera funds for his own pet projects. Also, revenues from existing cameras have declined by about 40% in the second half of 2008 as more and more drivers became aware of the locations. Local municipalities have also been looking for their cut, with Chevy Chase Village in particular profiting greatly from the cameras. While speed camera funds are nominally required to be used for public safety, that term is undefined. Chevy Chase Village board members have stated that portions of most items in their operating budget could be funded by the cameras, and have allocated safe speed funds for items such as a new locker room, a new office for the village chief of police, and purchasing a Segway.

When Takoma park joined the county's contract, they allowed the camera contractor, ACS (who receives $16.25 out of every citation) to conduct the traffic surveys which help determine where cameras are placed. It is unclear whether it was ACS or county officials who decided to chose camera location and orientation in Darnestown which minimize driver reaction time and thus create this highly profitable scenario.

Montgomery County is in the process of installing several more new cameras (see locations of planned and existing cameras here). requests that anyone discovering a camera which subjects drivers to the type of unfair enforcement as is being done in Darnestown please contact us. Meanwhile, those drivers who live, work, and pay taxes in Montgomery County should assume they will be subjected to this type of "zero tolerance" photo enforcement. Those who are only visiting should consider spending their money elsewhere.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

AAA Calls for the Removal of Chevy Chase Speed Cameras

A representative of AAA Mid-Atlantic is calling for some of the speed cameras in the Village of Chevy Chase to be removed, saying "AAA supports these cameras as long as they are for safety. But we don't think that these cameras on Connecticut Avenue are doing a lot for safety, however, we do think they are doing a lot for the coffers of Chevy Chase Village."

AAA sometimes advocates drivers rights, but also sells insurance and lobbies for the insurance industry. AAA had previously given its support to the law authorizing Montgomery County's Safe Speed Program. However a rift developed when details of Montgomery County's illegal contract arrangement with ACS were revealed.

According to the Geoff Biddle, village manager for Chevy Chase, the village's speed camera program racked up $1.58 million in revenue during fiscal year 2008, from just two fixed cameras and two mobile cameras that operate in the Village. While legally required to be spent only on public safety, that is poorly defined. The minutes of Chevy Chase Village meetings show board members saying that portions of almost every item in the Village operating budget could be paid with speed camera funds, and show that fund being used for such things as a new locker room and a new Segway. An effort was made by the legislature in 2008 to remove that constraint completely.

Beware of Prank Speed Camera Tickets

The Sentinel has reported that some local teenagers have exploited Montgomery County Speed Cameras for a new prank dubbed the Speed Camera "Pimping" game.

The students duplicate the license plates by printing license plate numbers on glossy photo paper, using fonts that "mimic" those on Maryland license plates. They tape the duplicate plate over the existing plate on the back of their car, purposefully speed past a camera, and then quickly stop and remove the fake plate before they are detected. This easily thwarts the cursory review (if any) which tickets are given. The victim, who is identified solely by license plate numbers, receives a citation in the mail days later.

The students used fonts which looked similar to those on a Maryland license plate available on the internet. In some cases, students have even obtained vehicles from their friends that are similar or identical to the make and model of the car owned by the targeted victim. Potentially a victim might not even realize it was not their car if they normally drive past the same camera. One parent who discovered this commented that "This game is very disturbing, especially since unsuspecting parents will also be victimized through receipt of unwarranted photo speed tickets." and stated that "I hope the public at large will complain loudly enough that local Montgomery County government officials will change their policy of using these cameras for monetary gain," the parent said. "The practice of sending speeding tickets to faceless recipients without any type of verification is unwarranted and an exploitation of our rights."

Montgomery County Council President Phil Andrews was concerned that this could hurt the integrity of the Speed Camera Program. "It will cause potential problems for the Speed Camera Program in terms of the confidence in it."

In Europe, duplicating a plate using this same method (or possibly using a photo of the targeted plate), is referred to as Number Plate Cloning. A black market in counterfeit plates has even developed in some parts of Europe where speed cameras are very widespread. Criminals have been known to use fake or stolen license plates to avoid getting caught long before speed cameras were invented. By Maryland law, the fact that a license plate has been stolen is considered as proof of innocence for a speed camera ticket in court, if the defendant can show that the plate was reported stolen in a timely manner. However no provision of article 21-809 specifically addresses the issue of counterfeit plates as a defense. In the overwhelming majority of Montgomery County speed camera trials so far, only those unequivocal proof of their innocence had their fines completely revoked, with defendants who only have fairly good cases forced to pay $22.50 in court costs in addition to a fine. Montgomery County has reportedly been scheduling about 60 speed camera trials to be heard one after another, in assembly line fashion, by a single judge in a 4-5 period. Defendants are reportedly given about 3 minutes each to prove their innocence. As such, a person who is the victim of cloned plates very well might be forced to pay a fine, plus court costs

A paper duplicate would most likely be detected by a law enforcement officer close up, but probably not by one reviewing a large number of photographs one after another. Driving with a counterfeit or stolen license plate is illegal, and anyone engaging in such a "prank" should be aware that they could face criminal charges if they are spotted by a live police officer who, unlike a speed camera, is capable of independent thought.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Frederick City Officials Seeking Speed Cameras

Local Officials from the City of Frederick, Maryland are asking their county delegation to the General Assembly to seek authorization to install Speed Cameras. At a meeting on Tuesday Dec 9th with Frederick County lawmakers, Frederick City Alderwoman Marcia Hall, Alderwoman Donna Kuzemchak, and Alderman David Koontz made the request for speed camera legislation. Studying new ways to raise revenue without raising taxes was apparently also high on the legislators' priority list, hmmm curious.

Given that such meetings are often overly represented by people with more free time on their hands rather than those who spend lots of their time driving to other parts of the state, and who favor additional government intervention rather than those who favor limited government and personal liberty, those residents of Frederick who hold a different view may be underrepresented. I would encourage you to write to representatives in Frederick City or Frederick County and also to your state representatives that you disagree with your local officials on this matter. A sample letter can be found HERE. The next General Assembly starts on January 14th 2009.

Meanwhile, Governor O'Malley recently restated his support for statewide speed camera legislation, similar to the bills which came within a hair's breadth of passing in 2008.