Saturday, October 27, 2012

Rockville Sees Enormous Jump In Red Light Camera Tickets

Data released by the City of Rockville showed that their newly upgraded red light cameras, which ticket for slow moving right turns on red, have produced an order of magnitude increase in the number of citations being issued compared to prior months.

After we noted that many cameras deployed by Rockville had been flashing when there was no apparent violation, and began receiving reports from large numbers of motorists being ticketed for making right turns on red from Rockville, StopBigBrotherMD.org filed a public information act request with the city.  The request included the monthly total number of red light camera violations for the city’s red light cams, including the number which were for right turns, for 2011 and 2012.  The following data sheet was provided:

In the first 3 months of 2012, and all of 2011, the total for ten red light cameras was less than 900 per month.  In April the city changed vendors and the old cameras were switched off, with no violations collected for 3 months.

Then in August, after five of the new model cameras were deployed, the city issued 5557 citations from just half the number of cameras.

Comparing the August numbers for the 3 pre-existing camera sites to their averages from 2012:
This shows that these three camera sites saw between 9.8 and 28.7 times as many violations as they were producing in the prior year.  These citations, if fully paid, would total $416,775 in fines FOR ONE MONTH.

Documents released by the city revealed the replacement of the cameras and the city's plan to install five more of the new cameras, which will soon return them to a total of ten.

The city stated they did not maintain records on the number of violations which were right turns (and Rockville’s RLC citations make no distinction between the two types of violations).  However other documents released by the city showed they had received multiple complaints about right turn tickets, and an unusually large number of requests to contest citations.  The city did put out a press release stating that they were ticketing for right turns – later the same day that we did our story on the issue.  The city did respond to some of the motorists’ complaints with emails defending the practice, stating that Maryland law requires a full stop before making a right turn on red.

StopBigBrotherMD.org's position is that the state’s red light camera law was not enacted with the intent of  photo-ticketing for right turns, since neither article 21-202.1 nor the law’s legislative history makes any reference to right turns and does not specifically refer to the portion of law (21-202(i)) which addresses making red turns on red.  A report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration(NHTSA) showed that the impact right-turn-on-red on safety is extremely small.

Other documents showed that the city had received many emails complaining of cameras flashing when there was no apparent violation.  The city did not provide any documents showing they replied to any of those complaints replying to the individuals the way the new cameras work or that they were capturing right turns.  Some of these emails were initially directed to Montgomery County, so County Police were aware of the complaints about Rockville’s cameras.  “It’s very distracting, and I’ve observed the cameras taking pictures of cars completely obeying the rules of the road.”, one motorist wrote.  Other motorists complained of cameras flashing while they were making legal right turns with a green arrow, or of cameras flashing cars coming to a full stop at the intersection.  While the city provided responses to individuals complaint about actually getting right turn tickets, they did not release any letters showing they had replied to people asking about unexplained flashing, except to one who made a formal Public Information Act request.

The city’s new cameras did not come without a hitch.  Documents show that the city was forced to refund or void over a hundred violations which were ACS imprinted with the signature of a Montgomery county employee who did not in fact review the tickets.

Other documents showed the city was forced to void or refund well over a hundred refunds, and StopBigBrotherMD.org was contacted by several motorists who had received administrative void letters.  (This actually stands in stark contrast to the actions of another jurisdiction, Riverdale Park, which has been alleged to have systematically performed robosigning of tickets and forging of a police officer’s name, but has chosen to defend the practice rather than refunding the citations.)

Another motorist submitted a public information act request to Rockville asking for the technical spec and citation approval procedures for the city’s red light cameras, and has provided this information to us.  You can read those documents here.

The motorist had inquired about the ‘warning flashes’ which Montgomery County has stated to WTOP that their cameras issue.  The technical documents made no reference to ‘warning flashes’. When pressed for an explanation of the ‘Warning Flashes’, the city replied to him:
“The photo sequence of the camera is set to initiate if the speed of the vehicle at a set distance prior to the stop line is at or above 13 mph. As the vehicle continues to move past the stop line, a vehicle is not cited if their speed going across the line drops below 13 mph. The speed of the vehicle as it travels across the stop line is the exit speed. If the vehicle had an exit speed of 13 mph or above but slowed down to less than 13 mph shortly afterwards, the vehicle will still be cited in accordance with the law. The flashes are part of this sequence.”

The document states that cameras provide video clips starting 6 seconds before the violation, meaning that they would need to be clairvoyant in order to capture this video before the car was even close enough to trigger the device, unless they were continuously taking video. The documents show that the cameras have a 'surveillance video storage length' of ’30-60 days’.

Other documents provided to StopBigBrotherMD.org indicated that the cut off for issuing a red light ticket by Rockville's cameras was 0.1s after the light turns from amber to red.  (Average human reaction time is about 0.22s for simple operations, and actually stopping a vehicle takes several seconds).

Citation review procedures indicated that the onus was on approvers to provide a reason for rejecting citations (from a specific list of allowed reasons), and that they were required to attempt to ‘correct’ the reason for before rejecting the ticket.