Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Local Governments Oppose Even Minor Reforms to Speed Camera Law

Legislative testimony on a relatively weak speed camera reform bill by Senator James Brochin made it painfully clear that local governments, particularly Montgomery County, continue to oppose even minor reforms to Maryland's speed camera Law.

A recent "secret" audit of Baltimore's currently mothballed speed camera program, previously run by Xerox Corp, showed that ten percent of citations were apparently issued in error.  A few of the errors were so outrageous they involved stationary cars getting citations, as well as trucks accused of going twice their actual speeds, based on recorded videos.  Baltimore had tried to keep the audit secret due to a nondisclosure agreement with Xerox, however the document was leaked.  Xerox is the same contractor used by Montgomery County, the SHA, Gaithersburg, Rockville, Takoma Park, Chevy Chase, and several other local governments.  The audit has prompted renewed calls to correct gaping problems with Maryland's over forty separate local speed camera programs.

However local governments continue resisting any changes of substance.  Worse yet, they are now disguising their obstructionism by claiming to support meaningless "reforms" which have no practical effect and which while changing a lot of words would not change "business as usual".

Last year Montgomery County specifically opposed, at taxpayer expense, any changes which would require citations to provide evidence of speed by showing the real interval between images, rather than deliberately rounding off timestamps.  Brochin spoke about how this provision was struck from his bill last year:
"One of the things I did to placate places like Montgomery County was, in last year's bill I said you had to show the progression of the car to see how fast it was going," Brochin said. "Baltimore City has that capability because they have these things called time stamps, but in Montgomery County your chief of police and your people said 'Look, we don't do it that way, we don't show progression.' So I took that out of the bill."
Apparently in Maryland, "Look we don't do it that way" is sufficient reason to never change any bad practices.

Montgomery County Speed Camera Headquarters
Montgomery County typically rounds timestamps off to the nearest second, and has adamantly refused to provide the time interval between images to defendants.  This makes it impossible verify speed by computing "distance traveled / time ", and makes Montgomery County immune to the possibility of errors like those in Baltimore being discovered.  Well mostly immune.  Montgomery County asserts that because their equipment is "calibrated", "nothing can possiblue go wrong".  Even though Xerox's cameras in Baltimore which were calibrated and had passed all their calibration tests DID go wrong and produced errors.  And even though Montgomery County has written that they do get errors with their cameras.

The technical task of placing a time interval on a speed camera citation is trivially simple compared to the task of accurately capturing vehicle speed.  Most speed cameras, including the VITRONIC speed cameras used by Montgomery, are capable of having their software upgraded, so it does not require hardware changes.  Even were that not the case the citations themselves are not generated by the camera, but rather by "back end" citation processing software.  Even if the device were physically incapable of imprinting the time interval on images it would be possible to determine the time interval between images empirically by observing them, determining the time interval and the margin of error, and adding that to the information in the template used for citations.  Verifying speed would then simply be a matter of computing distance traveled / time interval, and would be an exercise left to the one percent of motorists who actually try to dispute tickets.

In fact Xerox's own training materials reference the use of images to verify speed:
Excerpt from Xerox's Speed Camera Training Documents

Excerpt from Xerox's Speed Camera Training Documents

So basically we are saying that local governments LIED TO THE LEGISLATURE AND TO THE PRESS when they said they could not use images to verify speed.  Seriously, if it were really the case that Xerox were too technically incompetent to perform the relatively simple task of adding a time interval, why in God's name should we believe they are competent enough to perform the far more technically challenging task of capturing vehicles speed with 100% reliability?

The most major change in Brochin's bill is the creation of an "Ombudsman" within each speed camera programs, who has the ability to void tickets.  This is modeled after a role in Montgomery County (and as such represents no change to Montgomery's program).  However this person is actually the PROGRAM MANAGER for Montgomery County's speed cameras, and as such is only loyal to the program and to the county politicians whom he answers to.  'Ombudsman' Richard Harrison claimed in the hearing for Brochin's bill that he had voided "fifteen to twenty" citations over the course of his tenure.  Montgomery County issues approximately HALF A MILLION citations per year, meaning Montgomery County's ombudsman has voided only about 0.004% of it's tickets.  Several motorist who have written to Richard Harrison claiming errors reported to us that they were simply told that their citations look fine and if they don't like it they need to go to court.  In other jurisdictions, such as College Park, when people contacted the city to complain of errors, they were similarly told "it looks fine to me" and "we do not use images to verify speed".

Montgomery County Speed Camera Chief Tom Didone boasted that they had worked to improve the integrity of speed camera programs across the state by holding a speed camera symposium on December 4rth to train local speed camera programs about best practices.  This is the same symposium which the Maryland Drivers Alliance was BLOCKED FROM ATTENDING, and which members of the press were forbidden to observe as well.  In fact, most of what was discussed was how to talk to the press, and "how to run an effective media campaign", as well as working on a legislative strategy.  AAA (an insurance company which supports speed cameras) attended that event, where Lon Anderson argued that that they need to do a better job of changing public perceptions.

The Real Reason Nothing Is Getting Done To Fix Things
Montgomery county basically invented the practice of using creative "linguistic gymnastics" to circumvent an existing prohibition in the law on 'contingent fee' contracts, and has extensively used taxpayer resources to defend their "loophole" both in the legislature and in court.  Even Governor O'Malley has said counties need to stop paying "based on the number of tickets".   Nevertheless, Montgomery County has opposed the change and also asserted that the timeframe to end their "bounty system" contract by the end of 2014 was unrealistic.  Montgomery County has known for years that it was possible the legislature would require them to change it and has an option in their contract to allow them to effortlessly switch to a flat fee arrangement if the law were changed.

In any event, Brochin's bill contains a new loophole which would permit speed camera contractors to continue paying based on the number of tickets, another change cooked up by the Environmental Matters Committee last year to placate local governments who only wanted to APPEAR to change what they were doing.

At least one other county government has already proposed circumventing the new rule simply by breaking up the single per ticket fee into several smaller per-ticket fees which totaled approximately the same amount.  Wicomico County's contractor has assured them the new arrangement is completely equivalent to their existing per ticket arrangement.  
"Redspeed assures the County that the new system was created to be equivalent to the old system"
Last year a motorist made a public records request to Montgomery County's Office of Intergovernment Relations for copies of correspondence about speed camera legislation.  The county replied that they had "banker boxes full" of such documents, and that it would cost the requester over $700 just to sort them.  When the requester tried to limit the request only to certain keyword searchable emails, the county responded by raising the fee to $1200 rather than lowering it.

Apparently, Seventy Thousand False Accusations against motorists, $2.8million wrongfully taken by a municipal speed camera program, waves of local government secrecy, and errors and calibration problems reported all across the state, are still not enough to spur the legislature into taking any sort of bold action.  Unfortunately, so many local governments who have entrenched their systems now oppose any changes at all to their sloppy, improper and deceptive practices.  It is questionable whether any reforms of substance are even possible unless a great many state and county lawmakers get fired in November.

The Drivers Alliance noted in its testimony that our efforts to access calibration documents has been blocked in several cases.  Nevertheless we had still been able to prove that those requirements had been circumvented in several cities.  We argued that only audits of all speed camera programs can get to the truth, given the resistance many governments have shown to any kind of outside scrutiny.

Brochin's bill was met with little interest by members of Judicial Proceedings, most of whom had left the room by the time testimony began.  Representatives from Montgomery County, Prince George's County, and MaCo, were still unhappy with the bill's watered down provisions, and sought to have them further weakened.   Senator Jennie Forehand, who repeatedly fawned over Montgomery County's speed camera program during the hearing, stated she would need to run the provisions by municipal governments to ensure it would not require them to make any changes they didn't want  (in other words, Senator Jennie Forehand is actively working to oppose any type of reform whatsoever).

The Maryland Drivers Alliance is calling for all citations to contain accurate time stamps and that this be allowed as evidence to verify speed.  We are calling for annual performance audits of all speed camera programs to verify calibration records and check the accuracy of a sample of citations.  We don't think any bill which does not include those things is really "reform" at all, just a ruse to stall changes until the whole Baltimore scandal is forgotten.

And we think the local governments which oppose reforms such as audits and evidence of speed are in fact the ones which need it most.