Thursday, October 29, 2009

School Zones Expanded to Allow Speed Cameras

When Senate Bill 277 was passed this year, supporters frequently pointed to the fact that the cameras would be limited to school and work zones only. In the case of work zones, a loophole was built into the law, permitting their use 'regardless of whether workers were present'. Now StopBigBrotherMD.org has learned that Baltimore City has created new school zones specifically for the purpose of installing school zone speed cameras.

According to state law (TR § 21‐803.1) and Maryland State Highway Administration ASE guidelines, a school zone does not automatically appear within all roads within a 1/2 mile radius of a school, but are defined as follows:
'“School Zone” is a segment of a highway located within a School Area that is (1) routinely used by pupils for access to or egress from school buildings or grounds, (2) established by official action, and (3) designated by appropriate signs."'[...]
and
"A school zone is officially designated as such when the required signs are installed. Designated school zone signs should only be installed where school facilities are in actual use for school activities."
Standard signage is required at the beginning and end of the zones.
After Baltimore City released the locations of 51 planned speed camera sites, a member of StopBigBrotherMD investigated several of these locations. It is possible to view most locations using Google Maps and in Google Street View. Google Street view provides 360 degree scrollable imagery of many roadways, albeit typically one or two years old. It turns out many of the locations had no signs indicating school zones or any 'End School Zone' signs preceding them. A number of the sites also did not appear to be located on roads adjacent to a school, but instead seemed to have been selected merely because there was an existing red light camera which Baltimore's Contractor (ACS) could easily convert into a speed camera. It was noted that some camera sites had been placed on State or US highways, which are not typically under the jurisdiction of or the property of a local municipality. The SHA ASE guidelines indicate that it is the SHA which has authority to establish school zones and authorize speed cameras on state highways.

An inquiry was made to the Baltimore City Transportation department and a little over a week later the following response was received:

"Thank you for your request. In response to your e-mail below:

You asked if the locations for speed cameras were all pre-existing school zones. No they were not.

You asked if the city will ensure that all of these locations have required signage before the speed cameras are installed. The answer is yes.

You asked if the State Highway Administration's approval was, or will be received for designating the locations for the speed cameras. The answer is no. The city maintains the state highways. We do not need SHA's approval."

StopBigBrotherMD.org also examined several roads designated for speed cameras in New Carrollton and could not find 'SCHOOL' or 'End School Zone' signs on any of the designated roads -- both on those designated roads which were not immediately adjacent to a school and on those which did in fact pass right by a school. It is unclear at this time whether the New Carrollton locations were supposed to be school zones but were improperly marked at the time the Street View images were recorded, or whether like Baltimore the school zones were simply added after there was the new motive of adding cameras.

We have created the following videos which document this situation for 4 locations in Baltimore and 2 locations in New Carrollton. Many other locations had similar lack of signage.




StopBigBrotherMD fully believes that safety in school zone is important. However given that these locations were not previously designated as school zones begs the question whether safety concerns was the real motivation for selecting them. Other means besides speed cameras have been proven effective at reducing speeding and/or reducing accidents, but apparently those were not tried in many of these locations. Speaking as a parent of two small children myself, IF these were legitimate locations for school zones we might ask why public officials put the safety of children at risk by not bothering to do the inexpensive bare minimum step of marking the locations as school zones and alerting drivers to the presence of a school nearby... until there was a revenue motive for doing so.

========================================================================

Additional Coverage as of 11/4/2009 : ABC2News has investigated this further. Apparently cameras are being installed before the signs are going up. Referring to a new camera on Norther Parkway "Workers installed speed cameras at the intersection today, the signs formally calling it a school zone will come later. " See TV Story.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Transporation Planning Board Pushes to Track, Tax Area Drivers

The National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board (TPB) voted at its October 21rst meeting to seek federal funding to conduct a study of a controversial per-mile tax on drivers throughout the DC metro area, including suburban Maryland and Virginia. The road pricing plan, if implemented, would involve charging tolls on existing roads in DC and suburban Maryland and Virginia. The tolls would be adjusted based on time of day and location in order to discourage less wealthy drivers from using roads during peak periods and to raise up to $4.8 billion per year in new revenue from the pockets of area drivers (compared to $420 billion extracted right now through area gas taxes). In order to accomplish this all cars in the region would need to be fitted with GPS transponders and according to the proposal "This device would record the type of vehicle, the distance traveled, and the time and location of travel."

Road pricing systems are already in use in London and in Stockholm, but a proposal to implement it in New York city was shot down by New York state. The purpose of the study would be not to determine whether the system is a wise choice (the TPB members have already concluded they want the money), but rather to determine how to re-brand or repackage this new tax in a way that would avoid widespread organized opposition. The study will take place in 2010. After it is complete, the next step would be a demonstration of project of tolling via GPS tracking on one or more local roads.

A representative from AAA made a scathing commentary on the proposal : "The charges for driving as proposed in the Brookings paper are so high that they are no longer tolls, they are fines, intended to penalize and discourage driving" and "You know, it's illegal for motorists to drive intoxicated. Apparently no such rule exists concerning consumption while writing grant proposals." However WTOP quoted Arlington County Board member Chris Zimmerman voiced his support for the new revenue road taxes would generate: "Most of us sitting at the (Virginia) table have voted for every single tax that we have had a chance to vote for, and we still can not get anything done. "

Some local government officials responsible for setting tolls and transportation are often exempt from EZPass tolls since they have been issued free EZPass transponders by their state. According to an article by WTOP last year, Virginia issued a free EZPass to their Transportation Commissioner and 16 members of the VA Commonwealth Transportation board. Maryland issued transponders to citizens appointed to the Maryland Transportation Authority and to the Secretary of Transportation, as well as "vehicles of officials and employees of the executive, legislative and judicial departments of the State" with total of 15,00 free transponders in use by the state of MD. Maryland lawmakers are currently involved in a scuffle regarding their free ezpasses, but regardless of the outcome they will still retain a $500/year travel expense account which can be used to pay tolls.

Because several members of the TPB are local elected officials who are up for re-election on November 3rd 2009, a supporter of StopBigBrotherMD.org and area resident attempted to acquire the TPB's voting record on this issue for the public. After two requests to contacts at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments to acquire this information the response was that the TPB does not record individual votes and that, and that the minutes of the meeting would not be made available until shortly before the next TPB meeting (ie after the 2009 elections). Here are the members of the transportation planning board; we suggest our readers contact their area's TPB representative and advise them to make the TPB more transparent and accountable. You may wish to talk to your area's representatives on the MWCOG board of directors, which also approved the study.

Coverage on WTOP
Coverage on TheNewspaper.Com
Text of the Road Pricing Plan Proposal

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Prince George's County asks Revenue Authority to Select Camera Sites

Prince George's County is moving ahead with plans to deploy speed cameras by asking the County Revenue Authority to select 50 speed camera sites. Yes you read that correctly. This Freudian slip caused certain vocal speed camera supporters to have a tizzy fit. I don't understand the problem, at least they're being honest about it.

According to the Gazette article Prince George's will start with a fleet of 10 vans outfitted with cameras to be posted at potential sites, and then a private company will install fixed cameras at a rate of five locations every three months. (and, if they follow the same type of contract arrangement as Montgomery County and Baltimore, that company will likely receive a cut of every ticket).

Prince George's county officials also expressed discontent over restrictions in the law (that the cameras are restricted to within 1/2 mile of schools and in freeway work zones without workers):
"I think we should, maybe next session, be asking the state to modify it," said Councilman Thomas Dernoga (D-Dist. 1) of Laurel, adding that the council should make speed camera expansion a priority with the General Assembly.
Prince George's County had originally asked the council for speed cameras on 'Primary Highways' with lower ticket thresholds, and higher fines[see 2009 bill, 2008 bill]. Frederick City officials have expressed similar wishes. Montgomery County has also recently whined that some of the restrictions in the law (part of the compromise used to sell the idea of statewide cameras and speed cameras on 55 and 65mph freeway workzones-without-workers) would cost them money. Montgomery County had written $13million into their FY10 budget in fines for violations which had not yet been committed (apparently once the county plans on a certain number of violations taking place, it is already their money and they are entitled to have those violations occur and receive the revenue from them), and the county had doubled their number of cameras to reach this quota. No, the the government will not rest on its laurels and accept any restrictions on what it can do. In fact they don't intend to stop until they can bill you for every mile you drive.

====================================
Addendum 0n 11/10/2009
Prince George's County has been trying to convince the public that the 'Revenue' authority is not a money collection organization by stating "the Revenue Authority, despite its name, is not a tax collection agency but the operator of the county's parking facilities. " While that is in fact true, the Revenue Authority's Mission statement on its own website makes it clear that this is a deception, and that it's primary function is in fact revenue collection, and that it does not have responsibility for public safety related functions:
" MISSION
The Revenue Authority is dedicated to promoting the public interest of Prince George's County by:
  • Facilitating economic development and employment growth
  • Owning, operating and maintaining revenue-producing facilities
  • Financing County capital improvement projects
  • Managing a self-supporting public parking program"

Saturday, October 17, 2009

DC Area Agency Wants to Track Every Vehicle

There's a new idea coming which is going to hit every DC-Metro area driver in the pocketbook, not to mention create an Orwellian nightmare which might make speed cameras seem quaint by comparison. The National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board(TPB) is considering a pilot study to introduce 'Congestion Pricing' or 'Road Pricing' on existing roads in and around DC.
Congestion Pricing is used in some European cities like London and Stockholm. A plan to implement congestion pricing in New York City was rejected by the state legislature in 2008. However a bill by Oregon Representative Earl Blumenaur to spend $154million of taxpayer dollars to study the introduction of a Vehicle Miles Traveled Tax was met with enthusiasm by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments(MWCOG), which has asked the TPB to request funding for this study in DC, Maryland, and Virginia.

According to the proposal the TPB is considering, entitled 'Road-Pricing: How would you like to spend less time in traffic?' (but would have been more appropriately named 'Tolls Everywhere: How would you like to be taxed out of your car?') includes the following description:
"Vehicles would be fitted with a GPS transponder device similar to an E-ZPass, perhaps as part of the registration process. If the program expanded nationally, manufacturers might even integrate transponders into new vehicles, similar to General Motors OnStar system. Insurance companies could also encourage motorists to use transponders as the companies transition to their own VMT-based risk model, as some have already begun to do. This device would record the type of vehicle, the distance traveled, and the time and location of travel. The transponder would sort the data into various toll categories"
Alternative forms of congestion pricing which MWCOG is considering are not much better and would consist of converting most major metro-area roads into toll roads. That would essentially necessitate everyone to use EZPasses to drive anywhere, and coerce them into doing so by charging exorbitant fees or causing additional delays to vehicles without the devices. EZPass malfunctions have resulted in large numbers of drivers being improperly fined with photo tickets or overcharged. The devices can also be used to track people's movements.

If such tolls were implemented the same way the ICC tolls are planned, cameras equipt with Automated Plate recognition technology would be used to photograph non-EZPass users and mail them a bill for their tolls plus a service charge (so much for 'if your not speeding you won't get your picture taken'). This technology has become so annoying to some Europeans that a black market in fake license plates has developed.

MWCOG's plan would first conduct study about how to best dupe the public into accepting the system. Next would come a pilot program on some number of local roads. This would eventually be expanded to all major roads in and out of DC. The theory behind it is that by charging people for each mile of driving, those who cannot afford the new exhorbitant tolls will be forced to ride the bus whether they want to or not, and traffic congestion will improve as a result. Plus the government has a new source of revenue which, after paying the overhead imposed by the vast new bureaucracy the system will create, will generate more money for transportation projects, or whatever else the government decides to quiety divert the money to.

Members of the TPB must still approve this regressive taxation program an request that the Federal Highway Administration to get initial funding for the pilot study out of your tax dollars. The TPB will be meeting on Wed October 21rst, 2009 to discuss this. Maryland and Virginia drivers should fight this plan by anti-car activists to charge the American Taxpayers admission to the nation's capital and force drivers to accept the continuous tracking of their vehicles. Write or call your representative on the TPB, or email the TPB and and tell them where to cram their GPS transponders.
Related News Coverage on: wtop, myfoxdc, bizjournals

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Cameras Lied 24,000 Times

Check your scamera tickets boys and girls!

Page 35 of Montgomery County's recent speed camera report revealed that of the thousands of citations which were rejected before being mailed, 24,868 listed the reason as 'No Violation/Operator Error'. That is 24,868 speed camera errors which were discovered, but there is no way to know how many others actually went out and the drivers simply assumed that "pictures don't lie".

The county has asserted that it is conducting a review of every citation, and that such errors are almost always caught. However the fact is that some of these errors are known to have slipped through. Innocent drivers were clocked at 100mph, wrong vehicles have been cited, as well as duplicate citations were mailed months later with incorrect dates. And some those drivers simply paid the invalid tickets without question.

It has also been revealed recently that most of Montgomery County's cameras were not designed to distinguish the speeds of two vehicles close to each other (and are only now being replaced by a new generation of cameras which can). Many citations were apparently discarded because there were multiple vehicles in the photo. However apparently some of those citations still go out. In the case of the citation shown here, three vehicles are in the image. The ticket recipient (who had never received a speeding ticket before in decades of driving) contacted the head of Montgomery County's speed camera program calling attention to the 2nd vehicle in the citation. She was told "I have reviewed your citation and find it in good order." and that she needed to go to court if she wished to challenge it -- this despite the fact that the county's procedures acknowledge that the cameras could not distinguish the speeds of nearby vehicles and that such citations should be discarded. Despite this setback, in this instance the defendant challenged the ticket and was, after spending much more than $40 worth of time and effort preparing her defense, able to get her citation dismissed.

The question is, given the difficulty of remembering and proving what your speed was weeks after the fact, and that out of state drivers have no practical way to challenge a citation in court, will we ever know how many wrongly accused drivers were not so fortunate? Remember that paying a citation is an admission of guilt. If you think you weren't speeding don't just take their word for it, fight it.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Don't Taze Me Cam

Chevy Chase Village Police Chief Roy Gordon has requested that the Village spend $30,000 in speed camera revenue to purchase 12 Tasers. Tasers are considered 'less lethal' alternatives to firearms since their use by police has resulted in only about 148 deaths since 1999[ref].

Legally, speed camera funds are supposed to be limited to Public Safety expenditures. Chevy Chase Village has thus far included Cable TV lines, a new office for their police chief, a Segway, and energy saver lightbulbs in the 'public safety' category.

CouncilMember Phil Andrews stated his opposition to the Taser proposal, "I think the public would prefer to see speed camera revenues directly related to traffic safety." However the reality is that very little of Montgomery County's own speed camera funds have been spent on such purposes, instead being spent on items already planned in the County budget. In early 2009 Councilmember Andrews admitted in a council session that "There's not a way to specifically account for how the money is being spent. It goes into the General Fund." Neither the Chevy Chase Village budget nor the County's list of expenditures in its OLO report reveal significant amounts of speed camera funds spent on other types of traffic calming devices, which have been shown to be more effective at reducing average speeds than speed cameras. Since the Village doesn't wish to invest in such devices, perhaps the sight of taser weilding police will reduce accidents?

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Frederick City Debating Cameras

Frederick City is considering authorizing speed cameras this year, with the majority of City Aldermen voicing their support for the proposal at an October 7th Meeting. If approved, Frederick would be authorized to collect net revenues equal to 10% of its current budget -- about $11million/year after the contractor's cut, assuming the same % as Montgomery County pays, or about 8 tickets per resident of the city per year --- at the expense of residents' constitutional right to face their accuser and be considered innocent until proven guilty.

Donna Kuzemchak and Marcia Hall were both quoted by the Frederick Post supporting the cameras. One Alderman David Koontz expressed his desire to push the limits of what the law allows and then request the restrictions be lifted by stating 'I think it's ridiculous we can only have them in school zones'. Police Chief Kim Dine said the half-mile radius and the number of schools in the city would create a large area for cameras to operate, indicating this is OK with him.

The schedule of upcoming city meetings can be found HERE. The Board of Alderman's next public meeting is scheduled for October 15th. The Members of the Board of Aldermen are all up for re-election on November 3, 2009.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Baltimore Begins Massive Camera Rollout

The City of Baltimore has begun deployment of the first the city's new speed cameras. Already 51 proposed camera sites have been selected. In addition, the state has begun to deploy workzone cameras to interstate highways I-95 and I-695. We have updated our map of speed camera locations to include current and planned locations in and around Baltimore.

These cameras are nominally limited to school zones and highway work zones. However nearly any street within a 1/2 mile radius of a school can be designated a school zone. By that definition, approximately 80 percent of the city qualifies. Any other road can be designated a 'workzone', regardless of whether any workers are present any actual construction work taking place.

To install the cameras as quickly as possible, Baltimore contracted with ACS State and Local solutions, who runs Montgomery County's speed cameras as well as Baltimore's existing red light cameras. The city's existing red light cameras will apparently be refitted to house the more lucrative speed cameras. The contract pays a percentage cut of every ticket to the contractor, much like the one which Montgomery County is currently being sued over. Baltimore wrote $7million of revenue from the cameras into their FY10 budget back in April of this year, before the required local legislation authorizing the cameras was passed in August, and before the required public hearings were held.

Baltimore has one of the most extensive red light camera programs in the country. In 2003 a city judge discovered that many of Baltimore's red light cameras were installed at intersections with below standard yellow light durations. With that experience, they should have good luck with their speed camera program.

Citizens who want to express their views may wish to contact the Baltimore City Council or perhaps Mayor Dixon (Good luck with those perjury charges Mayor. Perhaps that will give her a better understanding of why the words 'innocent until proven guilty' are important.)

Regardless, with 51 speed camera locations and dozens of existing red light cameras, and a surrounding ring of freeway cameras, Baltimore appears to be well on its way to having one of the most extensive mass surveillance systems in the country.

Montgomery County OLO Report Rebuttal

The Montgomery County Government has recently been touting a glowing report by the Office of Legislative Oversight. To summarize the report: everything about the program is perfect, everyone is happy, everything is wonderful, pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. Since this is a highly biased report, we will now give you our highly biased rebuttal.

The County has presented this as an objective report, but the OLO is in fact not an independent body, but is directly beholding to the county Council. According to the OLO website, "the OLO Director is a non-merit appointee of the County Council" -- basically a political appointee whose serves at the pleasure of a council whose members have all invested a great deal of political capital in the speed camera program. As such the OLO report is the County Council reporting on itself, so it is not surprisingly that the County Council gave themselves a nearly perfect review.

The report claims a 23% reduction is accidents within 1/2 mile of speed camera sites within a year of the cameras being activated. It mentions that part of the selection criteria for sites was 'Annual number of property damage, personal injury, and fatal automobile collisions (within 1/2 mile)', which indicates that there was a built in 'regression to mean' factor built into the study: if a site was selected because there had been an unusual increase in accidents the year before, that number would tend to return to the average. It is also the case that it was dealing with accident reports, which only take place when the incident is reported to police. If accident reports are not taken in the same way, or with the same frequency, the validity of results becomes questionable. If police were no longer deployed in a location because human traffic stops were replaced by a speed camera, minor accidents might never be reported because the drivers would have moved on before any police arrive. The report could not avoid two important statistics regarding the most highly published types of accidents:
"A small number of the collisions in the injury/fatality category involved fatalities. In the four years prior to camera activation, the County experienced an average of two fatal collisions per year in the vicinity of future MCPD speed camera sites. Three collisions resulting in a fatality occurred in the year after camera activation."
and
"In the four years before camera activation, the County experienced an average of 15 collisions per year involving pedestrians or bicyclists within one half mile of future MCPD speed camera sites. During the year following activation of speed cameras, 22 collisions with pedestrians and bicyclists occurred in the same areas."

It is known that several traffic fatalities have occurred in close proximity to MoCO speed cameras in 2009 (although the exact criteria used for counting such incidents is unclear) so it is entirely possible that these figures were not flukes and do represent a trend. However both of the previous unfortunate facts were followed by disclaimers : 'OLO notes that the number of events in this category is too small to draw any definitive conclusions about the relationship between speed cameras and the prevalence of fatal collisions.' and 'Given the small number of incidents and the annual variations, data from more than one year is necessary to establish a meaningful correlation between the presence of speed cameras and the frequency of pedestrian and bicycle collisions.' Similar 'excuses' were not present in sections where other samples for the same period of time were used to claim the success of the program.

The report makes no mention of the fact that traffic fatalities increased in MoCo from 2007 to 2008 from 48 to 51, a 6% increase, at a time when the county added 24 new fixed speed camera sites, and at a time when nationwide traffic fatalities dropped 10%. Nationwide traffic fatalities dropped an additional 9% in the 1rst quarter of 2009, the 12th consecutive quarterly decline nationally. This is despite the fact that only a few states use speed cameras now, and most of those only in limited areas. It also fails to mention that nationwide traffic fatalities per vehicle mile reached their lowest level ever in 2008, according to the National Highway Safety Administration, the continuation of a 30 year nationwide trend. In a sense the OLO report lacks a 'control group' and fails to compare the results in new speed camera zones with those in other areas, where other types of safety improvements were made instead.

The report made an effort to show the percent of vehicles traveling 1-10 and 11+ mph above the speed limit. However it makes no effort to measure traffic congestion, or what % of traffic was traveling 10mph below the limit, an indication of the level of traffic congestion. The report did indicate that there was apparently a 4% reduction in traffic volume, and stated that some people may have sought alternate routes to avoid the cameras (or traffic congestion caused by cameras?).

The report made no effort to compare their results with those achieved through other types of traffic calming. We previously did, and found that the city of Gaithersburg had succeeded in reducing average speeds by about 20% using other measures. The OLO report indicates that the average reduction in speeds at all camera sites was a mere 6%. (The OLO report makes it clear that most citations were given to people going 1-2mph over the ticket threshold, which is the reason why a 6% average decrease, apparently made a large difference in the % of drivers exceeding that threshold), or 11% as the maximum speed increase achieved by speed cameras. So if speed reduction was a goal, the report fails to demonstrate that the cameras are the only or best way to achieve them. The OLO report also fails to take into account the fact that at some speed camera sites there were new safety devices or additional signage added other than the speed cameras themselves (added either by the county's own choice, or in response to critics of the program) and that these may have affected the results at those locations.

The document acknowledges only 10 cases where a defendant was found not guilty, claiming a 99.7% conviction rate. In fact, the report does not acknowledge ANY cases where tickets were dismissed because citations were issued in error, even though several such cases have been documented in the mainstream media -- including at least 40 cases of duplicate citations being mailed months apart with incorrect timestamps, drivers receiving citations for another person's vehicle, and one case of an innocent driver being falsely clocked at 100mph. In fact the OLO Report confirms that 9 % of violations which were rejected either by ACS or by Police were determined to be "No Violation Occurred" or "Operator Error": a total of 24,868 speed camera photos were in fact generated in error(olo report pg 35). Yet mysteriously none of those cases when to court. Of course there is no way to know exactly how many erroneous citations slipped through the system and the drivers either paid them without question or could not prove their innocence beyond reasonable doubt. The report also does not acknowledge that the part of the reason is that drivers were instructed that they could not plead not guilty unless someone else was driving their car, even though defendants have reported to the media that they were told this by a judge.

The report did state that "MCPD attributes the high conviction rate to the coordination with the District Court in the Safe Speed programs early implementation stage. When the program began, MCPD demonstrated the speed camera technology for the District Court judges" -- in other words, the county began presenting its case to district court judges before the alleged violations took place without the later defendants having the opportunity to hear and know what information was presented to those judges. The report also confirms how court hearings are taking place: with 100-200 hearings being scheduled in a single courtroom on a single day once per month, giving each defendant only a few minutes to present their case (known as District Court 'Speed Camera Day').

The report documents some of Chevy Chase Village's results. However in May of this year we used CCV's own monthly police reports to show that there had been no reduction in accidents at all. The Village's response to that report was to stop publishing monthly police reports to their website: No new reports were posted to the Chevy Chase Village since their May report (see screen snapshot). Now that their raw data is no longer being subjected to public scrutiny, PROBLEM SOLVED!

The government cannot provide objective oversight for itself. That requires a vigilant public. It is the duty of the citizens and the media to question the information which the government produces and to ensure that it tells the whole story, not just the parts which help provide cover to county and state lawmakers for their votes.