Saturday, July 30, 2011

Tale of the Fishy Camera Logs

One of the arguments made to show that cameras are accurate is that they are “tested annually” by an “independents calibration lab” and “tested daily” by police or city officials.  But what does that actually mean?  Out investigation into camera logs in Forest Heights and other towns using Optotraffic cameras shows that “independent” testing is not quite so independent, that daily tests for “accuracy” show nothing of the sort.  Plus officials are either unwilling or unable to show that a human operator was present at the time of the test.

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Our search began in September when we first became aware of the reports of errors by Optotraffic speed cameras.  The recipient of some questionable citations (who had also been unable to receive a timely court hearing) filed a public information act request (at our recommendation) for records pertaining to camera errors,  maintenance of cameras, and causes for the delays in court hearings.  The town denied her request for all information except the following log.

The driver showed us the log, and we immediately realized that the signature of the same “operator” had signed the log which states “Signature of operator who performed self-test prior to producing recorded images”…. For 42 consecutive days, including weekends (when the devices cannot legally issue tickets) and the 4rth of July, with no days off, with signatures in nice neat straight rows.  While we admire such a diligent employee it did raise suspicion, since almost nobody works 42 consecutive days.  We also noticed that the released “log” excluded the ‘self test results” which are normally considered part of the “daily setup log” and are normally admitted as evidence as well.
On November 12, sent the town a follow-up request on behalf of this driver for the following information:
- the timecards, or if no timecard exists then other records of hours worked, for the speed monitoring system operator who signed the attached log for the speed monitoring system located at Indian Head Highway/Livingston Road NB, for all days from 6/22/2010 through 8/03/2010.
- A copy of the actual self test results (the actual output of the test), the system logs showing speed monitoring system's settings (threshold speed limit, setup-time, photo interval, etc), and system error logs for the speed monitoring system located at Indian Head Highway/Livingston Road NB on 7/4/2010, 7/5/2010, 7/8/2010, 7/20/2010, 7/22/2010, 7/27/2010.
- A copy of the certificate of calibration and/or calibration test record for the speed monitoring system referenced in the attached log.
The timecards of course would have proven whether or not the “operator” was in fact “working” on the day he signed that he “performed” the test.  In other words, they would show whether the signed, sworn statement on a document admitted as evidence in court was true or not.

No response was received from Forest Heights within the 30 day time period permitted by law.  The driver in this case eventually got a court hearing in December and needed to present her case without the requested evidence and was forced to pay the citations (this was before the technique for challenging citations based on time-distance calculations was well known).  Finally in APRIL received a response from Forest Heights, denying access to timecards.  However they did agree to release the camera logs and calibration certificates in exchange for a small fee.  That response was back dated to December 16, 2010 (which was still after the 30 days permitted by law, and no response had been received in December).  In May we sent payment for copies of the logs and calibration certificates which they had agreed to release.  A month later we finally received these daily setup log files, but the annual calibration certificates were still missing from the released documents.
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We quickly noticed that on every log file there was in fact a SECOND DATE, days or weeks after the test date.  Most of the logs had the second date 7/28/2010 regardless of the date of the test.  This seems to support the idea that the tests were all run automatically, and the ‘operator’ signed the statement after the fact.  Which would indicate that the "operator" did not "perform" the test "prior to producing recorded images" as the signed log files stated.  We also made a request for an administrative hearing with respect to the timecards, which as of this writing has not been honored.So what do these daily setup tests show?  Well lots of fancy charts and numbers, and seems to indicate everything is working right and a ‘Speed Error’ which seems to be very small.  But what is it actually testing?  Since this is an automatic test, it could not possibly bean actual vehicle driving past the sensor, so what is the claim of accuracy based on?

Well above the “speed error” it actually tells you what is tis based on “GPS Timing to Sensor Fire Timing Results”…. It is merely comparing the device’s internal timer to the time generated by the GPS satellites.  That’s all.  This is supported by the statement fromOptotraffic’s own technical document which describes the daily test as follows “the relative time between sensors is calibrated daily using the 1 pulse-per-second (PPS) signals from the global Position System (GPS) satellites”.  All the other items in the test are basically just saying the components are turned on and have power.   Optotraffic’s assertion is that the mere fact that the beams are firing at the correct rate and that the device’s internal timer is correct that it is accurate to much less than 1mph.  That is even though there is no test that the beams are aligned correctly, no ACTUAL speed measurement test, and certainly no test for the types of errors we have demonstrated are possible if the device’s two sensors strike different portions of the same vehicle.

But what about the annual test certificate?  Certainly that test covers everything else, right?  Well unfortunately to this date we have yet to receive the annual calibration certificates which Forest Heights stated they would provide.  Police Chief web stated that it was included in the documents he mailed us; it was not and he was informed of this, yet we have still to this date not received the certificates.

Fortunately, we have managed to acquire some calibration certificates from OTHER municipalities using Optotraffic cameras.  According to Optotraffic’s technical document, the annual test is described as follows ”Each Lane Sensor is third-party calibrated annually (by Maryland law) to verify the beam distance”.  That’s it. Optotraffic is basically asserting that if the ‘beam distance” is correct, and the internal timer is correct, then this means there are no other sources of error.  Never mind any factors that could come up in the real world environment (as opposed to the laboratory) such as the fact that the device is mounted atop a 32 foot tall pole that sways in the wind, or that the two beams could strike different portions of the same vehicle.

We had previously managed to acquire a calibration certificate for one of New Carrollton’s cameras, which would have been one of the first such devices deployed anywhere in the state.
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Page 1: click to enlarge
Observe the following:
1.       On the first page you should note the following:  The "Applied Specification" only says "Manufacturer Specification"..  They ONLY tested what Optotraffic TOLD THEM TO.  Basically Optotraffic wrote their own test, one they already knew they were certain to pass.  Think of it as if the specification consisted of “the device will be 27 inches long” and they measured it with a ruled, INSTEAD OF testing the device as a whole to measure actual speeds.  Optotraffic paid CustomCal to certify the device, but Optotraffic told them on what the basis to test it.
2.       The following disclaimer appears at the end of the "Measurement Assurance" section: "due to any number of factors, the recommended due date of the item calibrated does not imply continuing conformance to specifications during the recommended interval".  This disclaims the entire test.  These are mobile cameras, and have been handled in any of a number of ways between the date of that test and actual deployment, there is no way to know the beams are still properly aligned on the citation date.   The distance between beams is NOT part of the daily test!  In fact Optotraffic can, and has, modified the software on the devices over the course of the past years since the tests, and possibly the hardware as well.  Arguably this should also void the certification since it is no longer exactly the same device that the test was run on.
3.       Now notice on pages 2 and 3,  the user name is "Don Cornwell", and on 001007, the "approver" is "Jose Tillard".  Google "Jose Tillard Sigma Space" and you will see a Linkedin page for a systems engineer at Sigma Space.  Google "Sigma Space Don Cornwell" and "Optotraffic Don Cornwell " and you will get the following email addresses: and  Don Cornwell is the Chief Technical Officer of Optotraffic.  In this case they actually crossed out Mr Cornwell’s name and wrote in the name of a custom cal official on the signature line.  And then there’s the big word “Optotraffic” across page 2, rather than the name of the independent lab.
4.       Notice also the word ‘speed SIMULATOR ID’… this was not an actual test of a moving vehicle, it was some form of automatic software system test.  A ‘simulation’ performed by the Optotraffic employee, not a real world test by an independent lab on an actual moving object.

We also managed to later acquire some logs from Berwynn Heights.  These were similar, sowing the same “Manufacture specification”, describing the speed test as a “speed simulator”, with the same optotraffic employee username of dcornwell (or no username) for some of the speed simulator tests (in one case there was another user we could not identify).  The Berwynn Heighs tests simply showed no signature on the pages. 

A question worth asking is in what way is this level of testing adequate to ensure the reliability of the devices in a real world environment.  It seems clear from the description of the tests that Optotraffic is making assumptions that only a limited number of issues can affect accuracy, with all other factors being ignored.  And there is reason to believe the "operators" of the devices have in some instances been permitted to "operate" the devices while sitting on the beach.  Optotraffic gets paid based on the number of tickets issued, and local governments profit significantly from them as well.  The cameras in Forest Heights issued over $3million worth of tickets last year.  Forest Height’s entire budget prior to getting speed cameras was only $1.7million.   If it is being left up to those with such an enormous financial incentive to decide what constitutes adequate test, and how loosely the law can be interpreted, can the public and the courts and actually know whether the evidence being used against citizens is in fact reliable?  We'd believe they know nothing of the sort, particularly given the number of speed measurement errors that have been reported already.

Camera Sites in Brentwood, Mount Rainier to Shut Down

The SHA has notified the towns of Brentwood and Mount Rainier that they will be removing the school zone signage on US1 (Rhode Island Avenue) near 37th street where two "school zone" speed cameras were placed.  The Montessori school for which the school zone was marked in April 2010 was recently moved out of its Mount Rainier location to a new location in DC.

Each town controlled one of the two cameras.  we had previously reported that the section of road where these cameras are located was previously posted at 35mph but was re-posted as 25mph shortly before the cameras were deployed.  The exact number of violations issued by these cameras is unknown at this time, but Mount Rainier's FY12 budget shows that in the 8 months from 7/1/2010-2/282011/ the town received $1,087,591 in total speed camera revenue.  This is equal to at least 27,189 citations in 8 months.  For comparison Mount Rainier has a population of about 8,500 and a total FY12 budget of $4.6million. received to reply from either town in response to our questions about the change and how many citations had been issued since the school moved. While we have no specific information indicating that either the towns or the SHA were aware of the school's move before mid July, drivers who received citations from either camera in July 2011 or later and have not yet paid might consider contesting citations on the grounds that the school was no longer present. 

There are still other speed camera sites on US 1 farther north in College Park.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

National Camera News: Los Angeles City Council Shuts Down Red Light Cameras

The Los Angeles, CA city council has officially voted to end the city's red light camera program.  The council unanimously voted to accept last month's decision of a police commission against continuing the camera program.  "We need to be honest and transparent with this," city council member Zine said. "This program did not work as anticipated."   

The red light camera program for the nation's second largest city, which issued $476 tickets and included ticketing drivers for rolling right turns, will be ended July 31.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Annapolis City Council Prepares Speed Camera Ordinance

The Annapolis city council is preparing to discuss an ordinance to deploy speed cameras in the city.  The first reading of the ordinance will be at a Monday July 25th special council session.

A public hearing must still be scheduled before it can be voted on.  Citizens can also express their opinions on the subject by contacting the city council.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Prince George's Moves Ahead with Optotraffic Contract Despite Citizen Complaints

A panel of Prince George's County officials have selected Optotraffic, a division of Lanham Based Sigma Space Corporation, as the vendor for its speed camera program.   The decision to select the local vendor comes despite reports of errors by Optotraffic's cameras, as well as other issues such as drivers being denied court hearings.

We've previously reported how these errors have been independently reported in the mainstream press in Forest Heights and Brentwood, and that some citations have been shot down in court on the basis of accuracy.  We've pointed out that several citizens in the town of Cheverly completely independently raised accuracy issues about that town's cameras, confronting the town council in a public hearing (Cheverly's response to the complaints was later plagiarized by Forest Heights).  Citizens have independently written to the Gazette about the errors.  We've also reported on such errors in College Park and New Carrolton, and have received other reports of errors from Berwynn Heights and Riverdale Park. The errors were reported by a significant number of individuals independently of each other.

Friday, July 15, 2011

National Camera News: Voters Denied Voice In Camera Issues

Voters in Houston and Washington State are fighting for the people's right to decide public matters related to cameras in a referendum.

National Camera News: Incidents show photo tickets are not reviewed

Recent incidents in Arizona, Iowa, and Baltimore prove that photo tickets are commonly not reviewed by humans before they are issued.

Just in Case You've Forgotten

This is the time of year when we like to remind people that 'School Zone' speed cameras DO issue tickets in summer months while schools are closed, as well as on Holidays, M-Fr 6am-8pm. 

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Montgomery County Police Concerned with Drivers Going Too Slow

From the Gazette:
"The Montgomery County Police Department is seeking to amend state law to require that drivers in the left lane of some roads yield to faster cars.

The request was among 10 state legislative proposals discussed by the Montgomery County Council on Tuesday. Melanie Wenger, director of the county’s Office of Intergovernmental Relations, said County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) supports the legislation.

Drivers would be required to pull to the right if they were driving below the speed limit, or if they were driving at or over the speed limit, but a car approaching from behind was driving faster.
See Full Story in the Gazette

Update 7/15/2010: The Montgomery County Police have since withdrawn the request for this legislation, after it received attention in the media.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Video Demonstration of Optotraffic Speed Camera Error Mechanisms

StopBigBrotherMD has created a video demonstration of three possible mechanisms of speed measurement errors which we believe could occur under real world conditions with and Optotraffic speed camera.
Such errors have been reported extensively in Forest Heights, but also in Brentwood, Cheverly, New Carrollton, College Park, as well as other towns using this type of camera.  The evidence of those errors is based on time stamped images in most cased, but in a few instances it also included electronic recordings of the vehicle's speed, as well as some drivers' belief that the recorded speed was impossible under the circumstances.  Despite the numerous independent claims of errors Optotraffic has asserted that nobody has ever shown them proof of an error.

Optotraffic speed monitoring systems work under a fundamentally different principal than traditional police radar (which uses a Doppler effect) or police lidar (which uses a single range finder to take multiple distance measurements).  Instead the device (for which you can see Optotraffic's technical description and the patent record for the devices)  of uses two lasers fired parallel to each other and perpendicular to the ground from a 32 foot tall pole which essentially act as "switches" that determine the time the vehicle reaches each of the two beams and computes the speed based on the known distance between the beams.  Because there are two beams instead of one, we believe the device will produce an incorrect speed reading in any instance where the two beams make first contact with different portions of the same vehicle.  The video uses a 1:32 scale mockup of an Optotraffic camera with 2 laser pointers to document three possible ways the beams could in fact strike substantially different parts of the vehicle.
A written description of these error mechanisms follows:

1.    If the beam ‘overshoots’ the vehicle, and grazes along the top edge of the vehicle, then if the vehicle is moving at an angle or there is even a slight change in the height of the beams, a substantial error can occur.  Beam 1 could strike a point along the hood of the truck, while beam2

So the device believes the truck is traveling at:
Speed = (Calibrated Distance   / ( time2 – time 1)) When the REAL speed of the truck was:
Speed = ((Calibrated Distance  - Delta Dist)  / ( time2 – time 1)) Delta Dist could be substantial, we believe a delta dist of a foot or more would be possible under the right circumstances.  Given a 27 inch calibrated distance between lasers represents an error in the speed measurement to the order of 80%.
2.    If the beam “undershoots” the vehicle, a similar error could occur if the first beam strikes the tire before striking the nose of the vehicle, then the second beam first strikes the bumper.  This could happen if the beam is moving at a slight angle, from the center line towards the shoulder, or if either the beams or the road are not completely level.

The amount of error produced by undershoots would based on a delta distance of up to the distance between the front of the bumper of the vehicle and the front tire.  If this amount were 1 foot, that could mean an 80% speed measurement error.

3.    Interruption Error:  It is possible for lasers to pass through the wheel wells of a vehicle.   This would mean that the first beam will strike the front of the pickup truck first (Step 1), as expected.  However when the truck advances a short distance the beams would fall into the wheel wells and strike the ground (Step 2).  Both sensors would detect no vehicle present at this point.  A short distance later the first beam would now strike the truck’s tire (Step 3).  Then the second beam will finally strike the front of the truck (Step 4). 

The result of this scenario is that the device is computing a speed based on the calibrated distance between beams, but based on the time in which the truck has in reality traveled only (calibrated distance – Delta Distance) where Delta Distance is the distance between the front of the truck and the tire.
In a real vehicle, the gaps in the wheel wells are quite sufficient for a laser to pass through, several inches:
We stipulate that if you can see pavement, a laser would go through these gaps.  (But if you don't want to take our word for that, confirming this yourself is as easy as get a laser pointer and going out to the nearest parking lot).

We note that a disproportionate number of the errors observed have been pickup trucks or other large vehicles.  Such vehicles tend to have the largest gaps in the wheel wells, leaving them more susceptible to interruption errors.  They also have greater ground clearance than a passenger car, making undershoot errors more likely.  However it is still possible that these scenarios would occur on passenger cars.

It is notable that the three error mechanisms described in the video do NOT require any assumptions the the device be incorrectly set up or that it be incorrectly calibrated.  Even if the device is calibrated exactly as intended, and the device is set up exactly as designed, the problems could still happen if a vehicle is moving at a slight angle rather than completely perpendicular to the device, or if the road is not completely level, or in the case of an interruption error simply as a matter of where within the lane the vehicle is driving plus a small amount of bad luck.  And, there is absolutely nothing in either the annual calibration certificates or the daily setup logs for these cameras which indicate that any of the above conditions has been tested for, absolutely nothing.

In addition to the errors documented in the video, other error mechanisms could be considered, including
a) the effects of wind, which has been shown in a video to cause the 32 foot pole to sway (see video documenting this in winds as light at 4-9mph), could cause effects the device was not designed to compensate for
b)    ‘Cross eyed beams’, where the beams are not completely parallel.  This could be caused if the lasers were to shift in their housing during transport or setup.  The effect is that the two beams might be closer together at the target point, which would produce an incorrect speed measurement.
c)    Software errors of an indeterminate nature.
In a future posting we will explain why we believe the tests behind the "annual calibration certificates" and "daily self tests" in fact do NOT ensure that any of the last three problems would not occur. 

Now, we fully expect that Optotraffic will make some form of response to this, claiming that these would not result in errors, similar to the lame attempts which they made in the past to discount error claims.  And one could try to argue that Optotraffic is "innocent until proven guilty", and that so long as there is some tenuous possibility that our explanations are incorrect that Optotraffic's cameras should be "presumed innocent'.  There's just one problem with that: Optotraffic is NOT the accused, Optotraffic is the ACCUSER.  Every week Optotraffic mails thousands of citations generated by these cameras to Maryland drivers.  Evidence generated by these cameras is being submitted in court cases , with the courts by and large assuming that the devices are accurate (except of course for those drivers who have been unable to even get court hearings, including some who received tickets from Forest Heights who have been waiting over a year for hearings).  And even for those drivers who DO have compelling evidence they are innocent, it still costs them many times the cost of the ticket just in terms of the value of their own time.  The only people who will fight the tickets even when they know they are innocent are the few who are willing to do so out of principal. 

The situation has become particularly urgent because Prince George's County is currently considering making Optotraffic the contractor for its camera program which will include over 100 new speed camera sites, that is a huge number of opportunities for false accusations.  Those accusations are not just about $40 either: has received reports of drivers who have been disciplined and even fired after receiving speed camera tickets while driving a company or government owned vehicle in Maryland.  The possibility exists for someone's entire career to be ruined over a false accusation.

We believe Maryland should NOT be used as a beta test site for the nation's speed camera vendors.  At the very least if speed cameras are to be used, the devices should be proven accurate and reliable in real world conditions beyond doubt before they are allowed to issue tickets.  Some statewide or national organization with no financial interest in the outcome should be doing that.  We also believe some legislative remedy is necessary to provide more stringent standards for testing and statewide oversight. Maryland residents can help by contacting your state legislators.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Prince George's County Plans 113 Speed Camera Sites, 58 New School zones

The Prince George's County Government will be holding a public hearing on July 12th on a list of proposed speed camera sites.  The list include 55 'established school zones' and 58 sites which are not currently designated school zones, but which would become school zones under the new plan. 

Any road within a 1/2 mile radius of a school can potentially be designated as a school zone.  By that definition the combined land areas around this many sites would be larger than the District of Columbia.  The state highway administration updated their automated speed enforcement guidelines earlier this year, which clearly states that not all roads withing 1/2 mile of a school are automatically considered school zones:
"The Maryland Annotated Code (TR § 21-803.1) allows school zones to be established within a one-half (½) mile radius of any school. However, not every road segment within a ½ mile radius of a school should be a school zone." and "Except in unusual circumstances and as justified by a traffic engineering study, a school zone adjacent to a school should not exceed 500 feet approaching or beyond the school or the school activity. Where that activity is a school crossing only, the school zone typically should end a short distance beyond the crossing."  And that all such areas must be "established by official action by the entity that owns the highway containing the segment;"  "appropriately signed in conformance with the MdMUTCD and guidance issued by the State Highway Administration"

The boundaries of the new school zones are not listed in the meeting documents.  The list includes a school next to the locations, and do not give addresses for the schools or the bounds of the proposed zones.  Because of that it is unclear whether they will be designating specific sections actually near schools as school zone (as they would certainly prefer the public to believe), or whether they intend to do what many Municipalities have been doing for their programs, simply "designating" all roads within 1/2 mile radius of any portion of any school facility as a school zone, including in some cases major commuter routes in places not accessible to pedestrians.

It is interesting to note that the OLD VERSION of the SHA's ASE brochure included the sentence "School  zones  should  not  be  established  solely  for  the purpose  of  installing  speed  cameras.The SHA removed that sentence (over StopBigBrotherMD's written objections) when they rewrote the document (see new version), presumably either because most local government have not been complying with that anyways and have been creating vast new school zones solely for speed camera uses, or because they did not like the fact that StopBigBrotherMD has been quoting that statement.  (We keep copies of most of the documents we reference on this site, because the documents tend to be changed or deleted out from under us).  Should the proposed Prince George's County site list be selected as-is, then the majority of the county's speed cameras would be in locations designated as school zones solely for speed camera use.

We previously reported that Prince George's County issued an intent to award their speed camera contract to Optotraffic (a division of Sigma Space Corporation).  Optotraffic's cameras have been the subject of alleged errors as well as due process issues from citizens from Forest Heights who were unable to receive court hearings upon request(which Optotraffic is responsible for scheduling).  Optotraffic/Sigma Space Corporation was a contributor to the county executive's campaign and inauguration fund.  Under all of their existing contracts Optotraffic receives a percentage cut of each ticket in exchange for providing, maintaining, and processing violations from the cameras, as well as scheduling court hearings, mailing citations, and collecting payment.  Police and local officials are involved in rubber stamping signing the citations, and also for signing the 'daily setup logs' which supposedly test the machines (but which in reality do not involve actual speed tests to validate the devices).

The hearing on this list of proposed sites will be at July 12th at 1:30pm in the County Administration Building, 14741 Governor Oden Bowie drive Upper Marlboro, Maryland.  The notice also states that another hearing within the next 30 days to discuss the selection of a speed camera contractor .  We recommend that anyone who has issues with the performance of Optotraffic's cameras contact the county executive and county council prior to that time.