Monday, August 20, 2012

Montgomery County Switching Camera Tech

A Fixed Poliscan unit
Montgomery County's Speed Camera Contractor has replaced much of the county's photo enforcement equipment under a contract mod signed last September, including both red light and speed cameras.

The contract mod, WHICH YOU CAN SEE HERE, specifies that the county will replace all current red light camera systems with new "RLCS-1" systems, and all existing speed cameras with the contractor's latest Gatsometer RS-GS11 and Vitronic Poliscan equipment.  The contract mod was signed with ACS State and Local Solutions (now a division of Xerox Corporation), covers the county's 40 red light camera sites, 60 fixed speed camera sites, 10 'portable speed camera units" (ie "trash cams") and 6 mobile speed camera units (camera vans).  It also called for the addition of 10 new portable speed camera systems, and 20 additional red light cameras in the first year.  There is an option in the second year of the mod to add another 20 red light cameras, another 10 portable speed cameras, and for possible additional units added in subsequent years.

You may have noticed we refrained from using the term "upgrade" to describe the new systems.... 
The county probably considers the change from radar based Gatsometer GS11 units, which were incapable of distinguishing the speeds of vehicles in adjacent lanes, to LIDAR based VITRONIC Poliscan units (which are claimed to be able to automatically distinguish vehicles in adjacent lanes), as an upgrade.  The county's original contract with ACS called for ACS to provide IACP certified equipment, which RSGS-11 units are.  However as of this dateVitronic Poliscan units are still not on the IACP conforming products list.  The IACP (which test equipment according to standards defined by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and is the most widely accepted standard for speed testing) does have a LIDAR testing module which supports testing for "unattended use" for LIDAR based systems, and when ACS signed their contract with the State of Maryland for the "SafeZones" program in 2009, they promised to work towards getting IACP certificiation for the devices.  Because the LIDAR units do not require the county to throw out images if there are vehicles in adjacent lanes, they can issue more citations than with the radar based Gatso units.  This demonstrates that the county was willing to accept a lower standard of objective certification and testing for the devices, in exchange for the potential to issue more violations per camera.

State law does not currently require speed monitoring systems to be IACP certified, or to be tested according to NHTSA standards, or any other specific objective standard of accuracy, and in fact the state law on speed cameras does not even include the word "accuracy".  It only requires testing to a "manufacturer specification".  So while the county's cameras may in fact be tested for accuracy according to a standard of their contractor's choice, StopBigBrotherMD.org has argued that not requiring an objective standard has the potential for abuse if a standard which does not actually ensure accuracy and reliability under real world conditions were chosen, and therefore believes choosing hardware which is not on the IACP list is in fact a 'downgrade' in terms of justice.

Chevy Chase Village had used Vitronic Poliscan cameras for some time, and at one point was forced to throw out many of the captured violations because of a variety of technical glitches.  In 2011 Poliscan units employed by the State of Maryland were subjected to software upgrades and new rounds of testing, but only because StopBigBrotherMD.org got on their case about the fact that those cameras were not even certified in compliance with the low standard of state law.  But they've made some (unspecified) software changes, done new testing, and printed new certifications since then, so they probably work much better now.  The fact that the IACP hasn't put this particular equipment on their list of approved hardware 2 years after ACS originally said they would work towards such approval is probably not really important at all.

A Mobile Poliscan Unit
Under the contract mod, signed he county continues paying ACS $16.25 per citation, and requires the contractor to maintain a 90% "Prosecutable Issuance Rate".  ACS is responsible for all maintenance of the cameras, and all repairs, including the many incidents of camera vandalism which have been occurring in Maryland.  The contract also contains penalties for ACS if cameras are offline for an extended period of time due to technical problems.

The legality of the county's per-ticket fee arrangement is currently being decided by the state's highest court, the Court of Appeals, a topic on which we have written about many times.  The county asserts the arrangement does not violate a provision of the law which states "If a contractor operates a speed monitoring system on behalf of a local jurisdiction, the contractor's fee may not be contingent on the number of citations issued or paid." , on the grounds that the county, not ACS, "operates" the devices.  The suit against the county asserts that ACS maintains substantial control over the devices, and that the original intent of the law, as clearly stated by the legislative notes in the original law, was meant to ban all contingent fee contracts for speed cameras.

Poliscan units are also much smaller than the older 'fixed pole' speed cameras, making it harder from approaching motorists to see them and allowing the portable units to be concealed behind trees, bushes, and road signs.  The 'windows' shown on the photos above are only visible after the vehicle passes and the photo is already being taken, and to an approaching vehicle the devices look similar to a large circuit box, mailbox... or trash can.  This also potentially helps increase the number of citations issued.  The increasing use of portable cameras also allows the camera to deploy in new locations at any time.

The contract also contains an option for the county to convert it's red light cameras into "speed through traffic signal" (aka "speed on green" ) cameras, which would further increase the number of speed monitoring system sites in the county.

The contract contains a contingency "In the event that the applicable law changes to prohibit the per paid citation formula, the County will compensate the Contractor as follows", providing for flat fees of $7,650/month for fixed pole cameras, $7,500 for "mobile" speed cameras, and $13,925 for "portable" speed cameras.  This proves that abandoning the use of a contingent fee contract (a type of contract the legislature and the county government originally promised the public would not be used with speed cameras) would not be particularly disruptive to existing speed camera programs at all, as some local governments have asserted, should either the courts or the legislature choose to end the practice.

The contract also covers the county's automated License Plate Readers, which scan and collect data on every passing car.  "The Contractor's License Plate Reader (LPR) System must collect, analyze, and manage all the data from the individual ELSAG MPH-900 sites for real-time monitoring and alerting for critical intelligence needs".

The Washington Examiner reports that Montgomery County's speed camera program grossed $13,359 in FY 2011, but that this declined to $11,999,870 in FY2012 with a net of only $3.7million, after program expenses and the fee paid to Xerox corp.  With the new upgrades, the county projects that in FY2013 it will increase it's gross fines to $15.5million and nearly double its net revenue after expenses.

By comparison, the Examiner reports that Prince George's speed cameras grossed around $8million in FY2012 and plans to more than triple this amount to $28million in FY2012.