Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Optotraffic Contract with Cheverly Canceled, Town Records Expose Camera Errors

Optotraffic's speed camera contract with the town of Cheverly was canceled in August of this year, and records released by the town in response to a public information act request reveal a variety of errors and technical issues with the Optotraffic cameras which the town had complained about.
In a July 26, 2011 letter to Mario Bohorquez, Chief Commercial Officer of Optotraffic (a Division of Sigma Space Corporation), the town administrator discussing a variety of errors which the company had been unable to satisfactorily explain or remedy.

I am writing as a follow-up to my April letter and our subsequent meeting on May 4rth regarding various problems with your equipment and administrative issues.

Violations with tags visible in only one photo were an issue in April.

At the meeting, you indicated that these were false triggers that could have been caused by moisture in the air.  We note that if 90% of the photos collected were false triggers, then we were concerned about the accuracy of the remaining 10% where two tag images were captured.  You noted that the cameras were working correctly, however, you agreed to have the technicians look at the camera.  They did, and it was removed from service.  The cameras returned to service in a number of days later and was capturing photos of vehicles doing less than the posted speed limit, vehicles doing the speed limit and still vehicles in violation, but with only one tag image.
On July 21rst I was called to a meeting by your staff members to again discuss the situation.  Mickey was ill-prepared and had us all wait while he read the technical staff report provided by Ms. Anjenette Cramer, which he noted was very technical and could not be explained in laymen's terms.  He did state that there was nothing wrong with the camera and it was taken to download upgraded software.  We noted the capturing of speeds under the posted speed limit and he explained it as having been set low in the shot, but not reset when put back in service.  We noted that we were still getting one tag pictures for violators, this precluding us from issuing tickets in accordance with the state law.  He did not believe us and would not accept our statement unless he saw proof.  Not having it in hand the meeting was concluded until we could provide proof.  ENCLOSED is the proof.

Not only are the cameras still not functioning properly, they now are producing violations for invisible vehicles going 76 miles per hour (violation # 79) and bicycles going 38 and 57 miles per hour (violation #2790 & #2783) and now violations with just a part of a vehicle in only one photo.

Finally, we continue to get false speed readings for vehicles that have an irregular size such as buses and trucks with ladder racks.

Rather than have meeting to have Mickey tell us "that it’s technical" we would like you to have an explanation for the equipment problems provided to us in writing.  I look forward to hearing from you in the next 10 days."
The town did not release citation images, which are exempt from disclosure under the Public Information Act.  No written response from Optotraffic was included in the disclosure, if one was ever provided.

Shortly thereafter in August, with Cheverly officials apparently having lost faith in their company and hardware and had previously declared them to be "in breach of contract" in an April 21rst letter, Optotraffic sought to get ahead of the situation by exercising the option in the contract to terminate it (thus making it appear that the decision to do so was theirs).  At the same time Optotraffic widely distributing press releases declaring that it had "successfully accomplished its mission to support the Town of Cheverly in its efforts to reduce speeding".  The company even claimed that they had brought about a 96% reduction in speed violations, BUT FAILED TO MENTION THE FACT THAT THE REDUCTION IN CITATIONS WAS DUE TO HARDWARE MALFUNCTIONS.  In fact this was noted in another document disclosed by the town "Finally, I would be remiss to not note that the reduction /elimination of the ticket volume in the month of July and August were a result of the malfunctioning of the camera, which was the topic of our discussion at our June 14th meeting and resulted in the removal and attempted repair of the camera.  The explanations from your staff of the calibration error codes, false positives, malfunctions due to moisture in the air, uploading of new software and the break down of the generator served to reduce the number of citable speeding violations."

Unfortunately, the Optotraffic press release was only the latest in a long string of deceptions by the company.  Optotraffic employees have been standing up before the public, elected officials, and the press stating that the company had never seen proof of any errors by their cameras.  Those statements do not seem to be true.

In addition to the errors, other documents describe how calibration tests were not working properly, with calibration logs not appearing in the system until days after they were supposed to have been performed.

Additional documents dating back to August 2010 show police voiding citations for vehicles with ladder racks or trailers under the apparent belief that the speed measurement was incorrect.  "Also, if ladders atop trucks fives a false reading do roof racks, ski rackes, etc, cause a similar false reading?  Such as the following events..." a Cheverly Police officer wrote to Optotraffic CFO Mario Bohorquez in an August 6 2010 email.  No response to that question from Optotraffic was included in any of the disclosed documents.

(update 11/12/2011): Cheverly published a statement saying that it is "confident that all citations issued through its Speed Enforcement Program are accurate", stating that they had a strict standards for issuing citations "above and beyond the normal citation issuance process" and that all citations issued passed that review. 

We have reported extensively on the situation with Optotraffic cameras previously, including how some citizens in Cheverly had confronted the town council in the summer of 2010 about camera errors.  Other town residents had complained to town officials in private under the belief they had received citations with erroneous speed readings prior to the disclosure.

Reports of erroneous speed reading with large vehicles in other towns, like those described in the Cheverly documents, date back to summer of 2010 at the same time similar incidents had been reported elsewhere.  We have documented how errors have also been reported in College Park, Forest Heights, and several other towns.  Yet unfortunately, other local government clients chose to circle the wagons and deny the errors took place.  When defendants from those other towns go to court to challenge their tickets, representatives from those governments and Optotraffic have been standing up in court making claims about the accuracy and reliability of these machines and that they are operated and maintained properly (often without proof), and judges tend to believe those claims.  It seems reasonable to assume that innocent people may have been found guilty based on such testimony.

Cheverly has done the responsible thing, by admitting the problems they experienced and removing the cause of those problems (Optotraffic).  They should be commended for taking the risk and doing the right thing.  But other towns have not done so.  It is time for an independent investigation into Optotraffic's cameras, but more importantly into Optotraffic itself.  It is time for the public to find out whether other local governments have had similar issues, and who knew about these errors when Optotraffic was standing up before elected officials, the press, and in court, stating that they have had no errors.  It is time for other local governments who, unlike Cheverly, have obstructed public information act requests to keep the truth from the public (we will be placing a spotlight on THOSE local governments in the near future), to come clean and release ALL the records they have pertaining to errors with these devices.  And perhaps it is time to investigate whether some obstructions and deceptions may in fact constitute criminal violations of the law.

We will have MUCH more on this story.  Please come back soon.

Additional Coverage:
  Washington Examiner
  Washington Times