Friday, February 7, 2014

Lawmakers Introduce "Decoy" Speed Camera Non-Reform Bill

Maryland's speed camera problems have finally reached epic proportions.  The recent news that Baltimore City's speed camera program had error rates as high as ten percent, including tickets given to stationary cars, has even been featured on ABC World News Tonight.  There were allegations of bogus tickets given to teachers in Wicomico County, and bad calibrations in Hagerstown, Greenbelt, and Salisbury.  There have been the worst cases like the Town of Morningside, which in addition to having complaints of errors, told us they don't maintain any calibration records for their cameras.  There have been stories of other errors like a non speeding car getting a ticket in Montgomery County and allegations of errors in Bethesda.  Add to that the attempt by Baltimore to cover up the results of their audit, going after the audit's leaker, and holding secret speed camera meetings in violation of the Open Meetings Act.  There was the secret speed meeting hosted by Montgomery County, Prince George's and MaCo, which the head of Montgomery County's speed camera program specifically blocked critics from observing.

Maryland's speed camera law is well on it's way to being a national disgrace.  And with the press in a feeding frenzy and a flurry of reform bills coming out, what are the true believers in this corrupt due process destroying revenue collection system to do?

Well, of course, you get the leadership of the committee whom all speed camera bills must go through to sponsor a bill which contains a lot of confusing words which really do nothing, *claim* that it will fix the problems with the system, and then decree that all other reform bills which would actually change the way speed camera programs do business shall not pass the committee.

That's basically what Delegate James Malone (Environmental Matters Committee Vice Chair, D, Baltimore and Howard Counties) and Senator James Robey (D, Howard County) apparently have in mind.

The bill, House Bill 929/Senate Bill 652, contains a huge number of words, most of which do absolutely nothing to benefit motorists.  Among the bill's provisions:
- Encodes into law that a 5% rate of errors (1 in 20) is considered acceptable.  So if Baltimore's speed camera audit had revealed 30,000 errors instead of 70,000, that would have been A-OK.

- PRETENDS to eliminate the "bounty system", but really doesn't.   The bill's language contains several apparently deliberate loopholes to allow it to continue, notably that it would permit any payments based on ticket volume so long as it is not called "per ticket" (ie a single dollar amount for a single ticket, but paying a set amount for every 10 tickets, setting quotas, or paying a percentage of each ticket fine would be allowed, even though all of those are still "based on the number of tickets" but not "per ticket").  Even Governor O'Malley has said "The law says you're not supposed to charge by volume. I don't think we should charge by volume," O'Malley said. "If any county is, they need to change their program."  
Not "per ticket"... "by volume".... they are not supposed to be incentivizing contractors to issue more tickets.  It is not the SEMANTICS that are the problem, the problem is the REALITY of what they are doing.

- All existing contract arrangements are grandfathered in until 2017, giving local governments 3 years to find a new loophole to keep the "bounty system" in place, and hope this ugly mess and all the promises are forgotten by then.  In fact because of this it is possible that all of the bill's provisions could be ignored until that time.

A changes to the language of the law so that speed camera operators don't actually have to "operate" or test the devices at all.  This basically means that contractors will be allowed to operate the equipment and the agency employees will just rubber stamp the results sometime later.

- Require an "administrator" to be designated for each speed camera program, something most speed camera programs already have now.

- Pretends to create a new role for each speed camera program, "to investigate and respond to questions or concerns about the local jurisdiction's speed monitoring system program".  However most major speed camera programs already have someone who replies to complaints already, and the bill doesn't truly require that anything different be done about complaints.  For example, Montgomery County in particular has a person whom they refer to as an "Ombudsman", but in fact this person is their program manager, and as such his sole loyalty is to the PROGRAM not THE PEOPLE.  There is no reason to think people would get a different response under this bill than the "your ticket looks fine to me" response which Montgomery County normally gives people who say their tickets are inaccurate.  So the practical effect of this provision is to require each speed camera program to designate someone to conduct public relations.

- The bill's changes apply ONLY to local speed camera programs, and does nothing to affect the SHA's freeway workzones-with-no-workers program (which is governed by a different statute).   And audit of the SHA's program was conducted in 2012 and found numerous problems, so why are they not included?

- Defines a "school zone" to be almost the same as it is currently defined, except more clearly stating that it applies to K-12 schools.

- Makes a few minor clarifications regarding signage and notification requirements

Now, on the surface, this bill might be described as "mostly harmless".  So why do we think this bill is WORSE THAN USELESS?  Because this bill does NOTHING to address the reason we are having this conversation in the first place: the fact that Maryland's speed cameras have been proven far less accurate than the government has claimed, with error rates of up to ten percent having been proven in one city.  There are calls all across the state for audits of other speed camera programs, yet this bill does nothing to require them.  Right now when there are assertions of errors in Montgomery County or from the SHA's cameras, it is impossible to verify one way or another because those agencies withhold the real time stamps from ticket recipients, so verifying vehicle speed after the fact is impossible.  This bill does nothing to change that either.  All the public can do is hear them say "trust us", even though those cameras are run by the same contractor who ran Baltimore's error prone system.  And keep in mind, any bill is likely to get worse, not better, before it actually passes, so starting with a bill which is based on a weak, ineffective concept is a bad place to start.
Senator Robey: Author of Maryland's Current Broken Scamera Law

Make not mistake: Senator Robey is the AUTHOR of Maryland's current speed camera law.  He sponsored the statewide speed camera bill in 2009.  The current speed camera law is Senator Robey's baby.  HB929/SB652 was not written to address the concerns of motorists, it was written to address those of the state's big local speed camera programs like Montgomery County and Prince George's County.  And those agencies  think the only thing we need to do to fix Maryland's speed camera laws is answer the question "How do we do a better job of public relations?".  If only we can get a few of the sloppiest local speed camera programs in the state to do a better job of spinning the press and quietly disposing of any pictures of stationary 'speeding' cars before the media sees them, all their troubles will go away and they can go back to shafting people at will.

Maryland's speed camera law is a HOPELESS WRECK and has become a NATIONAL DISGRACE.  It does not need a band aide for a broken arm.  Maybe you could look at this bill as a starting point, if we at the Maryland Driver's Alliance didn't know that there are more credible options for reform already in play.  We know this bill's purpose is to prevent those other bills from passing.  And, they want to make sure that the sponsor of the bill who is ushering it through the legislature, is someone who has a FAWNING LOVE OF SPEED CAMERAS.  Someone who will help control the discussion of the bill and ensure that nothing undesirable to local speed camera programs gets added as an amendment.

THIS BILL is based around the concept that local speed camera programs should continue to police themselves.  This is exactly the WRONG MEDICINE for what is wrong with Maryland's speed camera programs.  In fact it is exactly how we got in this mess in the first place.  "Oversight" means someone coming in FROM THE OUTSIDE and enforcing the requirements of the law.  It means conducting AUDITS of speed camera programs, like a bills sponsored by Delegate BraveBoy.  And it means making the speeds recorded by citations be verifiable, like a bill sponsored by Delegate Cardin, or another sponsored by Delegate Smigiel.  If you want to fix the system THAT is the principal that should be at its core, not letting each local speed camera program police itself and say "trust us, it's calibrated."  Any one of those bills would be a better starting point for a reform bill than Robey/Malone's bill.  If not, then reform should mean REPEALING SPEED CAMERAS COMPLETELY,  since the legislature already proved last year that it will not do the right thing no matter what.

And no matter what, reform should mean NO MORE LIES.  If you say you are "ending the bounty system" then you do it FOR REAL.  You do not create NEW loopholes and then kick the can three years down the line so hopefully everyone will have forgotten the promises they were just told by the time the new loopholes get exploited!  The whole bounty system is BASED ON LIES the public was told at the beginning of Maryland's speed camera law, and the LAST THING WE NEED IS MORE LIES!!!!