Monday, January 21, 2013

First Speed Camera Reform Legislation Takes Shape

After many promises by state lawmakers to correct the gaping flaws in state's speed camera law which were laid bare by Baltimore City's buggy speed camera program, the first two speed camera reform bills have now been submitted to the General Assembly.

The first bill, Senate Bill 207, has been sponsored by Senators James Brochin(D, Baltimore County), Katherine Klausmeier(D, Baltimore County), Anthony Muse(D, Prince George's County), Douglas Peters(D, Prince George's), and Bobby Zirkin(D, Baltimore County).

SB207 contains several important provisions.  One, it would require that speed camera citation images "provide sufficient information to allow for the calculation of the speed of the motor vehicle during the interval between the two time-stamped images".  At various times defendants have been able to use time-stamped images to exonerate themselves of speeding.  However, despite such extensive evidence, speed camera contractors have often denied that citation images can be used to verify the recorded speed. Moreover, in many cases the speed camera contractors have made this a reality, by only providing images with time-stamps accurate to 1 second, giving no indication of the actual time interval between frames which is a fraction of a second.  For example, the same type of camera which was found to have issued 5% of it's citations in error, using time-stamped images with 3 decimal places as proof, is also used in other jurisdictions but with only 1 second precision -- the devices are all clearly CAPABLE of providing 3 decimal places of precision but the local governments have refused to provide this information to ticket recipients... even some motorists who specifically requested that information under the Maryland Public Information Act.
The bill also requires that jurisdictions "paint or otherwise apply marking to the portion of the roadway on which violations will be recorded to assist in the calculation of vehicle speed based on a recorded image."  An important aspect of this change since it clearly states that the purpose of the images and markings is to allow verification of speed, preventing speed camera contractors from making the very convenient claim that the purpose of speed camera images is merely  to show that the vehicle is present and moving, allowing them to prevent anyone from acquiring undeniable proof of systematic erroneous speed readings such as the ones which occurred in Baltimore City.

In fact, the use of white lines to verify speed is a national standard established in the NHTSA's guidelines of speed cameras*, which states
"2.18.2 Unattended Operation. If the ATR device is to be considered for unattended operation, the manufacturer shall provide a secondary method for verifying that the evidential recorded image properly identifies the target vehicle and reflects this vehicle’s true speed, as described in §5.18.2. This may be accomplished by means of a second, appropriately delayed image showing the target vehicle crossing a specified reference line."  So these changes would merely bring Maryland law into compliance with this national standard.  Some local speed camera programs already use white lines to verify speed, but most do not.  (*Yes, just so you know, your federal tax dollars are in fact being used to promote the use of speed cameras nationwide.)

In addition, the SB207 would change the wording of current law from "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."
"If a contractor ADMINISTERS AND PROCESSES CIVIL CITATIONS ISSUED UNDER THIS SECTION on behalf of a local jurisdiction, the contractor’s fee may not be contingent on the number of citations issued or paid."

This change is due to the fact that the language of the original law, which even governor O'Malley now says was intended to ban per-ticket bounties to speed camera contractors, has been effectively nullified after the Office of Attorney General Gansler (aka "The Department of Helping the Government Break the Law") instructed Montgomery County on how to bypass the rule, and that so long as they "don't use the O-word" ("operates") to describe what the contractor does they do not need to comply with the restriction regardless of the contractor's actual duties.  Changing the language of the law would HOPEFULLY prevent the law from being circumvented and end the practice of per-ticket bounties to speed camera contractors.

Lastly, the bill requires that "school zone" speed cameras be placed only within 500 feet of the grounds of an school, and only in a school zone "established for an elementary or secondary school".  After the statewide speed camera law was passed in 2009, some local governments created VAST new school zones which had never been marked as such before, and then placed cameras on roads which were not directly adjacent to any K-12 school.  In some cases entire towns were designated as school zones, and 75% of the city of Baltimore is now considered a "school zone" by the city's standard.

Sponsor Senator Brochin voted against statewide speed cameras in 2009 and has sponsored speed camera reform legislation in past years which would have prevented the state from placing "workzone" speed cameras in workzones with no workers ( the senate rejected this change last year and voted to keep workzones cameras where no workers are present ).

SB207 would need to clear the Judicial Proceedings Committee before it can go to a vote in the full Maryland Senate, however the prospects of at least getting past that barrier is at least reasonably possible given that three of the bill's sponsors sit on the committee.

The second bill is House Bill 166, which has been sponsored by Delegates John Cluster(R, Baltimore County), Kathy Afzalia (R, Frederick County), Wendell Beitzel (R, Allegany and Garret Counties), Joseph Boteler(R, Baltimore County), Eric Bromwell (D, Baltimore County), Stephen Hershey Jr (R, Kent, Queen Anne's, Cecil, and Caroline Counties), Wade Cache (R, Baltimore County), Susan Krebs (R, Baltimore County), Susan McComas(R, Harford County), Michael McDermott(R, Wicomico and Worchester Counties), Warren Miller (R, Howard County), Michael Smigiel (R, Kent, Queen Anne's, Cecil, and Caroline Counties), and Kathy Szeliga(R, Baltimore and Harford Counties).  You can read the full text of HB166 here.  Most of the sponsors of this bill are ones who opposed speed cameras and/or sponsored reform legislation in the past.

HB166 has two provisions.  First, the law requires that speed cameras receive a DAILY check by an "independent calibration laboratory".  Currently speed cameras are supposed to be inspected daily by the "operator", generally a representative of the local government which runs them.  However in reality the current tests have proven meaningless because our investigation revealed that cameras which issued defective citations in Baltimore City passed all the daily test "performed" by the city (although our investigation also showed that logs did not exist for many days).  The apparent intent of the bill would be to require a company which does not profit from keeping cameras online and issuing tickets to perform the daily tests instead.

Second, and arguably more importantly, the bill requires that all speed cameras provide a video clip of the alleged violation which could be made available only to the ticket recipient at their request.  This is significant because it was in fact the presence of videos from Baltimore city speed cameras which made proof of erroneous speed readings undeniable, since the videos clearly showed vehicles accused of traveling twice the speed limit simply moving along with traffic, or even sitting completely stationary at an intersection.  Had it not been for such videos, it is likely the Baltimore Sun would never have recognized the severity of the problems with the city's cameras, there never would have been a 'viral video' of a "speeding" minivan sitting motionless at a red light, Baltimore City and Xerox corp would never have admitted that their cameras had systematically issued erroneous tickets, and it is likely that our state legislature would have been content to allow them to go right on issuing tickets to innocent motorists.  The bill also addresses the fact that most motorists were until recently completely  unaware that many cameras in the state were in fact already recording videos which might have contained exonerating evidence, because the citations did not state this fact.  HB166 would that the citations state how the video can be obtained and that the video must be provided upon request free of charge.

The importance of this is that the threat of embarrassment by another viral video of an obviously innocent motorist being accused of speeding by a Maryland City could do FAR more to keep local governments honest than anything else, especially given the fact that the State of Maryland isn't going to actually do anything to enforce the requirements of the state's speed camera laws on local governments which choose to break them whenever they can marginally increase revenues by doing so.   Of course this is probably the real underlying reason why many supporters of speed cameras will end up opposing HB166 and try to get it killed in committee.  Having such irrefutable evidence of speed camera errors falling into "the wrong hands" (ie, the public's) is the LAST thing speed camera supporters (who prefer that the ONLY evidence of speed be the speed printed on the citation) would ever want to see.

House Bill 166 would first need to survive the House Environmental Matters Committee (chaired by Del Maggie McIntosh), which dismissed an important speed camera reform bill last year without giving it any serious consideration.

These bills would be excellent steps in reforming the state's speed camera laws.  Of course, even if these bills pass, one might ask whether local governments which consider themselves to be above the law would simply circumvent any new restrictions in the same way they have avoided complying with current restrictions (which has even included committing outright forgery and fraud).  No bill can change the fact that the state is not genuinely interested in providing real oversight over local speed camera programs.  And it won't change the fact that we have an Attorney General  who will ignore any violations of the law by local speed camera programs, and who believes it is his job to help local governments find ways to bypass any rules that are inconvenient for them.  But these bills would help limit the number of grossly false accusations handed out to innocent motorists, and that should count for something.

You can find your Maryland state lawmakers at and tell them what you think of these speed camera reform bills.

UPDATE:  A Hearing is now scheduled for SB 207 in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee on Feb 20 at 1pm.  The Committee will also be considering a speed camera repeal bill that day.
Judicial Proceedings Members

A Hearing is scheduled for HB166 and in the House Environmental Matters Committee on March 5 at 1pm.   The House Committee will also be considering a speed camera repeal bill that day.
Environmental Matters Members