Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Opinion: Lawmakers Not Off The Hook On Speed Camera Reform

Early this year there was much talk of reforming the State’s broken and corrupt speed camera law, prompted by proof that the City of Baltimore and Xerox Corp had been systematically issuing erroneous speed camera citations to innocent drivers, and by a scathing audit of the SHA which revealed deep flaws in the Maryland Safezones speed camera program.  Yet despite all this talk, and some very sound well thought out proposals such as a bill written by Senator Brochin and another bill by Delegate Jon Cardin, in the end the Maryland legislature utterly failed to address the problems.

How did this happen?  Some blame Senator Pipkin, for threatening to filibuster the last remnants of a speed camera bill on the final day of the session because the house had eliminated additional calibration requirements he had fought to be included in the Senate Bill, rather than accepting the “compromise”.  Certainly that's a very convenient approach for those who opposed reform, and who are now celebrating the fact that they got exactly what they wanted, but don't want to look overly joyous to the public over it.  But the reality is that REAL reform was already dead before that.  The leadership of the House and Senate had already collectively acted to remove the most vital provisions which would have actually made a difference in how speed camera programs are done. Supporters of motorist rights can hardly blame a long time advocate of drivers rights like Pipkin, a senator who has sponsored speed camera repeal legislation, for not wishing to accept a “reform” measure which did not adequately ensure that the integrity of the system would be substantially better or that promises which have been made to the public would actually begin to be kept.  

Senators Brochin and Carding both had sponsored bills which included the two key provisions of ending the “Bounty System” (ie paying contractors based on the number of tickets issued) and requiring that speed camera citations provide enough information to verify the speed of the vehicle after the fact (something which radar experts, college professors, members of the press, and motorist rights supporters have all called for).   These were simple, straight forward provisions with good intentions which would have allowed the cameras to continue operating if there was in fact a legitimate safety function for them, but would remove two of the biggest complaints people have about the cameras: namely that contractors have a profit motive to issue more tickets (in violation of the intent of an existing provision of the law according even to Governor O’Malley) and the inability to for defendants to contest the recorded speed in the case of speed measurement errors.

Yet local governments and the SHA swarmed to block these two provisions.  They were worried that ending the bounty system would cut into the revenue potential of these programs.  And they were TERRIFIED that if they were required to produce evidence of speed, then in fact people might actually discover errors of the same sort which Baltimore did.

Make no mistake about it: the SHA, local governments, and speed camera contractors have all been DELIBERATELY WITHHOLDING EVIDENCE from speed camera ticket defendants by denying them information about the real time intervals between citation images, and they are DESPERATE to keep it that way.  In so doing they are denying every speed camera ticket defendant their legal right to a fair defense, and they are concealing possible evidence of systematic errors of the same sort which occurred with Xerox's speed cameras in Baltimore City.  That same contractor, Xerox, holds the contracts for Montgomery County, Rockville, Gaithersburg, Chevy Chase, Takoma Park, Bowie, Howard County, Frederick City, Baltimore County and the SHA.  In those jurisdictions they believe motorists should simply trust them and their equipment without supporting evidence despite the fact that where that evidence WAS present their cameras were dead wrong.

So who does have the blame for the failure to pass speed camera reform?  The reality is that the leadership of the state legislature, and particularly the Environmental Matters Committee, never  intended to pass any meaningful reform this year.  An amendment introduced by Senator Madelino (D Montgomery  County) had already killed one of the vital provision in Brochin's bill which would have required proof of speed in the senate.  And the Environmental Matters Committee had blocked all bills but the one written by the Vice Chair, including Delegate Cardin’s bill.  The leadership of the Maryland legislature had already decided not to pass real reform long before the session came to a close, it was merely a matter of putting on enough of a show that the average person would not realize what they were doing.

Did the legislature wait until the last day of the session to push this year's gas tax increase through, or other highly controversial measures which passed this year?  Of course not, they WANTED those to pass.   Did the threat of a filibuster stop those bills?  Of course not, republicans do not even have enough votes in the Maryland Senate to sustain a filibuster on any bill which the senate leadership actually wants to pass.  But for Malone’s “reform” bill, they waited until nearly the end of the session, and dropped a newly minted bill on the floor, knowing full well there would not be time for the public to thoroughly evaluate its contents: this was a “take it or leave it” proposition.

Now, we are not saying there were no good provision’s in Malone’s bill.  There were some good things there.  All things considered the driving public might have been *marginally* better off in the short term had it passed.  But the current system in Maryland is not "marginally bad", it is terrible.  Malone's bill did not do ANYTHING to address the actual reason why reform was being considered in the first place: the fact that speed cameras in Maryland have been proven to be inaccurate.  And the bill would NOT have resulted in all local governments actually keeping the promise that contractors would not be paid based on the number of tickets issued: The House Committee had not only “grandfathered in “ existing bounty system contracts, but also included a brand new “loophole” which would have legalized any sort of payment based on ticket volume so long as it was not explicitly “per ticket” (such as paying for batches of tickets, or issuing bonuses for meeting certain quotas).

The legislation produced by the Environmental Matters committee was NOT intended to change the system for the better.   It was designed primarily based on input from local governments -- many acting through their front group the "Maryland Association of Counties" (MaCO)-- and speed camera vendors (who spent boatloads of cash on lobbyists) who felt that the only problem they needed to solve was  “How can we do a better job of public relations?” to prevent organized resistance to the state's broken law from rising above a dull roar.  So all this bill was intended to be was either a bunch of provisions designed to LOOK like change, but which really would not change anything fundamental, or something that would not be accepted by lawmakers who are critical of the current system and which would fail to get through the senate in time.  And while the writers of the bill took many pointers from those who profit from cameras, they certainly did not take into consideration the concerns raised by the DRIVERS who came to testify on speed camera reform legislation.

Had Malone’s bill passed, two years from now MOST speed camera contracts in the state would still be paying based on ticket volume.  Local governments could still issue tickets from inaccurate equipment which does not meet national standards for testing without any way of verifying their accuracy after the fact.  Nothing would have changed on this issue except there would have been yet another broken promise to the public.

So who has the blame for this?  Ultimately the blame must lie on the legislators who voted to put the cameras there in the first place.  State Lawmakers who voted for speed cameras in the first place have a MORAL OBLIGATION to ensure that the promises which have been made to the public are kept, that people will not be falsely accused, and that those who are accused have a legitimate chance to exonerate themselves.   They did not do that.  Now it is up to the public to ensure that those lawmakers are not let off the hook.  The driving public needs to unite into a citizen-based motorist organization which will work to hold state lawmakers accountable.  And they need to do this NOW, not wait until the start of the next session, because those who profit from Maryland’s corrupt speed camera law most certainly are not resting on their laurels after their victory at blocking reform and repeal legislation this year.