Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Brentwood Says They Cannot Access Requested Emails

The Town of Brentwood has asserted it cannot produce emails in response to a Maryland Public Information Act request because they are unable to access relevant email accounts.

The issue involves two Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA) requests filed by the Maryland Drivers Alliance chairman in October of 2010 and December of 2011.  The request were for, among other things, correspondence related to speed camera errors. State law requires a local government to respond to requests within 30 days, but the requester received no replies from the town for many months, despite having sent the requests both certified mail and attempting to follow up several times by email.  As of May 2013, we had still received no responsive documents. Several more attempts were made to resolve the matter with the town's newly elected Mayor, but in August the request had still not been fulfilled and we filed for judicial review.

In October 2013, after the case was filed (and three years after the initial request), the town produced about 60 pages of responsive correspondence.  However all of the included correspondence was dated after May 2013.  The documents released in October did reveal that errors had been discovered and voided several times in 2013, including several "incorrect tag numbers" and "False Speed Reading".
Portion of released documents



The requester agreed that personal data and citation images would not be included in the disclosure.  However there was no correspondence dated before May 2013, and no correspondence between the town's contractor and the specific email addresses and individuals known to have been involved with the program at the time the requests were made.

In November, we asked the town to look again at the specific email in-boxes known to have been used at the time of the requests, and to perform a "keyword search" for relevant documents.  Three months later, the attorney for Brentwood responded:  "the Town does not have access to these accounts.  These accounts were apparently utilized by former employees of Brentwood and no current employee of the Town can access these accounts."

The email addresses we asked about had been published on the town website, town newsletter, and town Facebook page at various times.  One of the addresses still appeared on the town website as a contact address as of 2/24/2013.

Both parties agreed to ask the court to delay the scheduled hearing for another 60 days, in order to make more time to recover the requested emails another way.

The case in question is Ely vs Brentwood, and is filed in Montgomery County Circuit Court as case number 380194V.  The Maryland Public Information Act authorizes a requester to file for "judicial review" in their home jurisdiction if a request is denied.

Montgomery County Questioned About Potential Camera Refunds

Montgomery County would not say whether they intended to offer refunds in response to a WUSA9 investigation which found that some of their speed camera sites did not meet a requirement of state law.

Maryland law requires that the locations of speed cameras be published in a newspaper prior to their activation.  However in investigation by WUSA9 in August concluded that Montgomery County hadn't published the following locations in any newspaper:
8000 Midcounty Highway, Gaithersburg
8100 Midcounty Highway, Gaithersburg
West Old Baltimore Road (eastbound), Boyds
West Old Baltimore Road (westbound), Boyds
18500 block of Barnesville Road in Barnesville
Prince George's County agreed to refund over 1000 citations over a similar problem there, regarding tickets issued at locations they admitted did not meet this requirement of state law.

Montgomery County did not provide an answer when WUSA9 asked them whether they would do the same, merely providing the following responses for more than a month:
January 23 – "We are reviewing the question"
January 24 – "No update"
January 28 – "Yes" (Response to the question, "Is the decision still pending?")
February 6 – "No decision as yet"
February 24 -- "No thanks. Have a good one." (Response to invitation for an interview.)
Montgomery County contends that motorists "admitted to speeding" by paying citations.  The county spent many thousands of dollars in taxpayer resources fighting to uphold this principal in court in the Baker vs Montgomery County decision, which essentially ruled that local government speed camera programs are protected from class action suits regardless of the basis.

However a motorists making the complaint to WUSA9 have asserted that he was not the driver at all, and that a relative was driving.  Speed camera citations are issued to the registered owner, not the driver.  (Most motorists are unaware of an affirmative defense which can be exercised when you are not the driver, which is not correctly stated on most speed camera citations.)

Montgomery County claims to have a position called an "ombudsman" whom they assert is an advocate for the public who has the power to void tickets.  The county supported a requirement for such a position in other local governments their testimony to legislature. but only as a way of advocating AGAINST more significant changes to the law prompted by large scale errors in Baltimore City.  In reality, the individual cited by the county as an "ombudsman" is really their program manager, and this person stated in hearings to the state legislature that he has only voided "15-20" citations total (which would be less than 0.005% of the number of tickets Montgomery County issues in a year).  We can find no record that Montgomery County's "ombudsman", or anyone else in the county, has ever ordered a large scale refund for any reason, and as a result do not consider designating someone to have such a title as a solution to anything.

For example, four years ago in 2010 we discovered that Montgomery County had been systematically skipping required system tests of their cameras, violating a testing requirement clearly written into state law which the county acknowledged they were not meeting at the time.  While since that time the county has apparently altered their procedures so logs are present, there was never an announcement at that time of a large scale refund over an issue which likely affected many cameras, thousands of tickets, and involved a clear violation of a written requirement of state law regarding the calibration of equipment.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Baltimore City Inspector General To Conduct Investigation

Baltimore City Inspector General Robrt Pearre Jr has said he is starting an investigation into Baltimore City's speed camera program.

The investigation was prompted by the leak of a "secret" audit of Baltimore City's now mothballed speed camera program, which found that cameras used in the city under Contract with Xerox had error rates of ten percent, and even higher for a few individual cameras.  The city had previously claimed their error rate was "one quarter of one percent".  The Baltimore Sun wrote:
Pearre said his investigation will encompass work done with Xerox State and Local Solutions and Brekford Corp., the city's two speed camera vendors since 2009.
"It's going to be a comprehensive investigation," he said. "We're going back to the beginning. It's going to have a broad scope."
The announcement comes as the council committee awaits the production of reams of speed camera records from Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. Pearre, a former FBI agent, said he plans to "reach out to the council and try to collaborate."
The City Council is conducting their own investigation.  Some members of the council have expressed shock that the the Mayor chose to keep the Audit's findings from the council, asserting that a legal agreement with Xerox forbid the city from releasing it.  The document became public after a copy was leaked to the Baltimore Sun, despite the city's refusal to provide it to the paper.  The errors with the city's cameras included citations issued to stationary vehicles, and tickets accusing large trucks of traveling twice their actual speed... as proven by videos.  Based on the number of tickets issued by Baltimore City and the 10% error rate found in the secret audit, as many as 70,000 wrongful accusations could have been made in a single year.

Despite the investigation, the Mayor is still moving ahead with plans for a new speed camera program, having hired a consulting company to perform "site evaluations and engineering assessments" for new speed camera locations.  This contract was given to Century Engineering of Hunt Valley.

The issues in Baltimore and elsewhere in the state prompted several speed camera bills which were heard by a committee in the state legislature last week.  However Committee Vice Chair Delegate Malone openly stated at the very beginning of this hearing that only the bill which he had sponsored (HB929) would be allowed out of his committee.  In the Transportation and Motor Vehicles subcommittee meeting after the hearing, Malone expressed the opinion that motorists should not complain to the state legislature if they have issues with a local speed camera program.   The Sentinel quoted Malone as saying “I am confident that between those people, if I have a problem it will get taken care of, if there is a problem in Baltimore City, Baltimore City’s delegation can take the appropriate action to get what they need to get, in my opinion.”  Malone asserted that a motorist who had come to the hearing with complaints about the Town of Morningside's program should have taken his concerns up with the town's mayor (which that motorist had in fact attempted to do, without success) rather than bringing them to the legislature.

The Maryland Drivers Alliance noted in their testimony on HB929 that it contained loopholes which would prevent it from having the effects its sponsors claimed, and that it contained no requirement for a means to identify errors and therefore didn't address problems which had prompting calls for reform.  The bill "grandfathers in" exiting contract arrangement until 2017, giving it little immediate effect.  A stronger reform bill sponsored by Delegate Jon Cardin was promptly voted down by the Transportation Motor Vehicles Subcommittee, as was a bill to repeal speed cameras sponsored by Delegate Smigiel, and several other reform bills.  Proposed requirements for "secondary evidence" to identify the presence of errors were summarily rejected.  Malone and co-sponsor Delegate McMillan did leave open the possibility that their reform bill could still possibly be amended to include some form of audits, but claimed no state agency wanted to accept that responsibility.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Baltimore County Ticketed Wrong Motorist

The Baltimore Sun wrote that Baltimore County issued an erroneous speed camera citation to an innocent motorist:
Canton resident Emily Fusting knew right away that Baltimore County had the wrong person when she got a $40 speed camera ticket in the mail recently. She drives a gray Hyundai hatchback. The car nabbed by the county camera on Kenilworth Drive? A dark-colored sedan.
“If anybody took any time here, it would be clear this is not my car,” said Fusting, 24, a judicial clerk.
While her license plate appears similar to the tag on the car that triggered the camera Jan. 28, it’s hard to tell because the photo from the county’s camera is blurry.
On Wednesday county officials acknowledged their mistake. “This vehicle does not appear to belong to Ms. Fusting,” police spokeswoman Elise Armacost wrote in an email.
Armacost said three people, including a county police officer, must review every potential citation prior to issuance. “The officer and the two others who reviewed this one felt that it was clear enough to identify a license plate number and that the vehicle was a Hyundai,” Armacost said.

 The article noted that Baltimore County acknowledged that other such errors of this sort have occurred, but the county claims they are "relatively infrequent".
Armacost said the county will notify Fusting by mail that her citation has been voided.
Fusting said she's glad she won’t have to take time off from work to contest the ticket in court, something she says she would have done on principle. “But I also think it’s good to bring awareness to the fact that several people reviewed this and thought it was fine,” she said.
The assertion that three people review every citation is one made by other agencies, including Montgomery County who claims their three review steps is "the most in the state".  Baltimore City also previously claimed to perform "three tiers" of review

A recent audit of Baltimore City's former speed camera program with Xerox Corp (who is also Baltimore County's vendor) revealed error rates of ten percent, or more for individual cameras, with many vehicles cited for apparent inaccurate speed readings.  Various groups and a number of state lawmakers have called for independent audits of all speed camera programs to verify their accuracy rate.  However Baltimore County stated to the Baltimore Sun that they do not believe an audit is necessary.  

The Maryland Drivers Alliance has also called for audits, and believes that counties which say they do not need audits are the ones need to be audited first.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Forty Six State Lawmakers Call For Speed Camera Audits

A bill sponsored by by forty-six state lawmakers calls for quarterly audits of all local speed camera programs.

The wording of House Bill 1288 reads:
(I) A LOCAL JURISDICTION SHALL OBTAIN A QUARTERLY  AUDIT OF ITS SPEED MONITORING SYSTEMS CONDUCTED BY A QUALIFIED  INDEPENDENT PERSON. 
   (II) THE RESULTS OF THE QUARTERLY AUDIT: 
            1. SHALL BE KEPT ON FILE; AND 
            2. SHALL BE ADMITTED AS EVIDENCE IN ANY COURT PROCEEDING FOR A VIOLATION OF THIS SECTION. 

The sponsors of the bill are: Delegates Warren Miller, Arentz, Aumann, Bates, Bobo, Clippinger, Cluster, Conway, Costa, Davis, DeBoy, Elliott, Frank, Guzzone, Haddaway-Riccio, Haynes, Hucker, Impallaria, Jameson, K. Kelly, Kramer, Krebs, Lafferty, Love, McComas, McDermott, McDonough, McHale, Minnick, Mitchell, Myers, Norman, O'Donnell, Oaks, Olszewski, Otto, Rudolph, Schuh, Serafini, Smigiel, Stocksdale, Summers, F. Turner, Vaughn, Walker, and M. Washington.

The bill comes in the wake of the leaking of a secret audit of Baltimore City's speed camera program, which revealed error rates of ten percent overall, and much higher for a few locations, a rate forty times higher than was previously acknowledged.  There have also been errors in other parts of the state, including Wicomico County and Montgomery County.  And failures to follow calibration procedures have been confirmed in Hagerstown, Greenbelt, and Salisbury.  One local government, Morningside, refused to produced any calibration documents when we requested them.  The SHA also flunked an internal audit of their speed camera program in 2012.

The fact that the audit is required to be admissible as evidence is significant, since a defendant would be able to note any of an audit's findings in their defense.  It also would ensure the audit could not be kept secret.  Baltimore City denied the press access to their own damning audit, and has sought to spy on the employee suspected of leaking the report.

The bill, while simple and straight forward, is unspecific about the TYPE of audit to be performed.  For example whether it needs to actually check accuracy in the same way as the Baltimore City audit did, or whether specific documents and practices must be evaluated as part of such an audit.  It is also unspecific about who constitutes a "qualified independent person".  As such this would seem to be left to the discretion of the local government, unless the bill is amended to add more details.

Despite that, there is a chance that a less competent programs might "accidentally" have their faults revealed despite themselves.  Baltimore probably didn't think they were going to get a "real audit", but ended up accidentally getting the most thorough audit of any speed camera program in the state.

There is apparently some resistance to the idea from local governments. Howard County has also asserted that they see no need for audits.  Todd Pounds, the attorney for the Town of Morningside, told WTOP that if they thought there should be an audit of their speed camera program, WTOP should pay for it.

Tom Didone, who heads Montgomery County's speed camera program stated in his testimony on another bill that they already review each citation "and that does an automatic, basically a self audit for every citation that's issued in the county".  This clearly demonstrates no understanding of what the word "Audit" means, and tends to make one think Montgomery County would not willingly perform the type of audit which happened in Baltimore, but rather would try to pass off something they do already as an audit.

We think the local governments which oppose audits are the ones which should be audited first.

Delegate Aisha Braveboy has created a separate audit proposal, which would authorize the governor to require the audit.  Delegate Jon Cardin has also called for audits, and additionally is sponsoring a bill which addresses errors in other ways.

However the vice chair of the Environmental Matters Committee, James Malone, has created a "decoy speed camera reform bill", with the intention of allowing only "cosmetic" measures supported by county governments which profit from speed camera programs, and nothing else, to get through his committee.

A hearing on HB1288 to discuss audits is scheduled for Feb 25 in the Environmental Matters Committee.  You can follow this and other legislation on our Legislative Tracker Page.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Morningside Fails to Stand Behind Tickets in Court

The Town of Morningside failed to prosecute two speed camera tickets disputed in Prince George's County District Court on February 12th, according to a report by one of the defendants.

One of the defendants reported to us that "a court assistant" advised her to plead guilty.  However, she wisely did not follow this incorrect advise.
"the biggest lesson I learned was when the judge says: "[] you have been charged with doing 43 mph in a 30 mph zone do you agree or disagree? "...I'm supposed to say DISAGREE since Morningside didn't show up!  I said the right thing but it took me a second because the advice I got before I went in was "just plead guilty but say you have an explanation... it pisses the judge off when you say you're not guilty of a camera speed violation." 
This motorist was prepared not only to dispute the recorded speed, but also the legality of the placement of the speed camera on Suitland road.  However since the prosecution did not appear, this was not necessary.

It pains us when motorists who says they are innocent goes to court only to plead "guilty with explanation", especially if it is the product of someone giving them bad advice.  If you are disputing a camera ticket, you ALWAYS plead "NOT GUILTY".  "Guilty With Explanation" means "GUILTY".  You have just waived ALL your legal rights and the prosecution doesn't need to prove anything -- please do not waste the court system's time by doing that.  The worst case scenario of pleading "NOT GUILTY" on a speed camera ticket is exactly the same as the consequence of pleading "GUILTY", which is that you will be found guilty anyways.  Even if they don't have the skills to develop a real defense, a defendant can always state that that they believe the prosecution needs to prove the device was operated legally, and ask to examine each piece of evidence.  We are not saying your odds of prevailing are good with that approach, but it is still better than having a zero percent chance.

Moreover, if you think you are innocent but are unsure whether you can make a case, the correct thing to do is to request a hearing prior to the due date.  This gives you time to conduct research, and you can always pay the fine before the hearing if you conclude you don't have a defense.

Morningside previously dropped the case of a different motorist who happened to have a video recording of themselves driving past the camera, which was reported on WTOP.   The video showed them driving at the speed limit according to the speedometer.

That motorist made a complaint to the Prince George's County State's Attorney about various problems, including the apparent erroneous speed reading.  The response from John Ezren of the Office of State's Attorney demonstrated the total lack of any oversight of local speed camera programs in Maryland:
"If the camera is calibrated incorrectly, this is an issue that the Town of Morningside would need to address with the vendor to correct and ensure the camera remains properly calibrated.  We have not seen a copy of the contract between Morningside and Breckford, but there is probably language in it that speaks to the specifics of calibration.  So, if there is an issue, that would make it a contractual one that the town needs to address with the vendor.

All of this would amount to a civil issue and our office is responsible for criminal cases only.  Therefore, your complaint/concern would need to be addressed by the Town of Morningside."
So basically, according to the Prince George's County State's Attorney, improper calibration of a speed camera is just a "contractual issue" and there is no legal recourse if the local government refuses to address the systematic issuance of erroneous citations.

The cameras in question is located on Suitland Road, near Joint Base Andrews.  One of the cameras is pointed directly at a busy I-495 overpass, with fast moving traffic whizzing past in the background at all times directly behind the cited vehicles.  Our analysis of images from another motorist's citations did not indicate that the distance the vehicles moved between images was consistent with the recorded speeds, and the images clearly showed other traffic traveling in the background nearby.

The Town of Morningside denied a Public Information Act Request for all of their annual calibration certificates (past and current) and daily setup logs for a few specific dates.  The response from town attorney Todd Pounds was that they don't maintain any calibration records because the town is not the "operator" of the program.  We are currently in a legal dispute with Morningside over their failure to comply with the Maryland Public Information Act.  Even after we filed for judicial review, the town's response to our Public Information Act Request so far has been to respond with legalistic arguments about process service, threatening to respond by asking for sanctions against the requester, and the production (six months after the original request) of  just a few pages (but nowhere near all) of the calibration documents we requested.

Morningside installed the cameras on Suitland Road after the county denied their request for permission to put the cameras there.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Salisbury Police Acknowledged Some Calibration Issues

After months of obstruction, the City of Salisbury acknowledged that some lapses in the calibration of their speed cameras had in fact taken place, according to a report on WMDT:
Annual calibration reports for the city's cameras were recently released after public information requests from several watchdog groups. In those reports, it was revealed that certifications for two cameras had lapsed. They expired in December 2012, and weren't renewed until January 2013. It ended up being a 34 day span. 
"All of the citations that were issued in that span were either voided or the people were refunded their money," Barkley said. "But, just because it lapsed, doesn't mean it wasn't accurate." 
The error is not completely unheard of. Brekford also runs the programs in Greenbelt and Hagerstown, where hundreds of citations were also refunded or voided because of the same situation. 
"Some of those issues with the other jurisdictions, I can't tell you it's all Brekford, I don't know," Barkley said. 
He adds the oversight reinforces the need for the local jurisdictions to run their programs, and not the vendors. 
Salisbury had initially told the Maryland Drivers Alliance that they don't keep calibration records on file, but that their vendor had them... even though a city official is supposed to sign daily logs by law.  Brekford delayed the Public Information Act request for a month, and then demanded and excessive fee of to see the records. Then a narrower Public Information Act request made by another MDA member was obstructed for three months.  Eventually some documents were provided in response to a request by the Washington Times, which showed significant calibration lapses, and most requested daily setup logs were not produced.  It also turned out that the number of records Brekford claimed as the basis for their excessive fee in our initial request was greatly exaggerated, if the all of the documents even existed at all.

The city has since posted CURRENT calibration certificates, BUT NOT ONE'S FROM PRIOR YEARS, on their website.  Because of this they did not post the documents from the first year, when the certificates had been issued by the manufacturer rather than by an "independent calibration lab" as the law states, were not posted.

Also, the city's response addressed the annual calibration certificate lapses, but it did not explain the reason why many of the DAILY setup logs we asked for did not exist.  The daily setup logs for the city are not shown on the police website (which are required to be kept on file under state law).  As such it has not been confirmed that all the many days in 2013 which we have not requested daily setup logs for actually had the required tests and documentation.  Our request had included daily setup logs, and none were provided.  The Washington Times had requested 18 specific daily logs, and only four of those had been produced.  Even some of those had defects such as missing signatures.

The city still denies the cameras were inaccurate, however some motorists have asserted they were not driving the speeds shown on citations.

Speed cameras have come under increasing scrutiny since the leaking of a secret audit of Baltimore City which found that ten percent of citations were in fact errors.  Baltimore's program included speeding tickets issued to stationary vehicles, and that Baltimore's devices passed calibration tests even on the very day a stationary car was ticketed, proving that even a "properly calibrated" device can still be prone to errors.  In addition to calibration issues in Hagerstown and Greenbelt, the town of Morningside refused to produce calibration records, claiming that speed camera contractor Brekford "operates" their cameras for them.  Even now, months after we filed for judicial review in circuit court, Morningside has only produced a few pages of the many calibration documents and daily setup logs we asked for.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Drivers Alliance, NMA, Speak Out Against Mileage Tax

On February 6, the Maryland Drivers Alliance testified in favor of House Bill 277, which would forbid the creation of a Vehicle Mile Traveled (VMT) tax in the state.

The bill, sponsored by Delegate Justin Ready(R, Carroll County) and 23 other delegates, also bans the state from requiring the installation of devices for the purpose of collecting such a tax (most likely GPS based) into private vehicles.

The Maryland Department of Transportation called for the creation of a mileage tax on top of existing gas taxes by 2020.  In last year's testimony on a similar bill, the DOT's representative stated that they wanted to "keep the option" for a mileage tax, but refused to answer more specific questions from lawmakers about what they were planning.  The fiscal policy notes reference the 2012 draft plan which called for a mileage fee, and notes that "MDOT is working to identify potential transportation pricing and travel demand management incentive programs for consideration, including VMT fees".

A member of the Maryland Drivers Alliance spoke at the hearing in the Ways and Means Committee in support of the bill and against the DOT's plan for the creation of a Mileage Tax, citing the intrusive nature of a tax which requires tracking huge amounts of information about the moments of individual private vehicles.
The National Motorists Association (NMA), also supported the bill with written testimony.  Excerpts from the NMA's testimony follow:
The National Motorists Association (NMA) strongly supports House Bill 277, which would prohibit the state of Maryland or a local jurisdiction from imposing a tax or fee on vehicle owners based on the number of miles they travel. The measure would also prohibit the state or a local jurisdiction from requiring the installation of devices in or on private vehicles for the purposes of tracking and reporting vehicle miles traveled (VMT). 
[...]The requirement to equip every private vehicle on the road with a GPS transponder becomes onerous in many ways, but particularly due to the costs involved. Estimates to purchase and install a  GPS tracking device range from $50 to $100 per vehicle at scale.  There are 4.5 million privately owned )personal and commercial) vehicles registered in Maryland.  So even at the low end, that's a $225million expenditure and Maryland’s drivers and taxpayers would no doubt bear the brunt of this cost. Note that this does not include the costs to build the infrastructure/systems required to collect and report the data, or the costs to administer the program. When those are accounted for, the all-in costs to implement a VMT tax would be staggering.  
[...]The need to track every vehicle everywhere it goes raises serious privacy concerns. With recent revelations of the extent of National Security Agency (NSA) domestic surveillance operations, more and more Americans are becoming sensitized to the erosion of their constitutional right to privacy. Tracking motorists’ every move is intrusive, smacks of government overreach and would likely create significant public backlash. 
[...]A Vehicle Miles Traveled tax, if implemented in Maryland, would create financial hardship for many state residents due to the costs involved. It would also represent an intrusion on personal privacy and limit the freedom of state residents to travel freely as they choose. House Bill 277, if passed, would prohibit the imposition of a VMT tax and prevent the negative consequences that would result. 

Insurance Company AAA made no appearance at the hearing.

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.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Hearings Set for Speed Camera Bills

Hearings have been set for multiple speed camera "reform" bills in Maryland House and Senate Committees.

The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee will be hearing a bill sponsored by Senator Jim Brochin, SB 350, which makes a series of minor changes to the law.  The bill narrows the definition of where school zone speed cameras can be placed and changes notification periods. This is a very weak bill but one can hold out hope it might be amended enough to actually matter.

An even weaker and really lame bill sponsored by Senator James Robey, who is essentially the author of Maryland's current crummy, broken speed camera law.  The bill's complicated provisions primarily addresses concerns as they are perceived by county speed camera programs who believe there is nothing wrong with what they are doing, and is designed to answer the question "How can we do a better job of public relations?" rather than actually changing "business as usual".  The bill "grandfathers in" all existing arrangements until 2017.  SB 652 is scheduled for Feb 28 in the same Senate committee.

Any speed camera bill must go through Judicial Proceedings before it can be voted in the Senate.  The members of the Judicial Proceedings Committee can be contacted at the following email addresses:
brian.frosh@senate.state.md.us,  lisa.gladden@senate.state.md.us, jim.brochin@senate.state.md.us,
jennie.forehand@senate.state.md.us, steve.hershey@senate.state.md.us, nancy.jacobs@senate.state.md.us,
anthony.muse@senate.state.md.us, jamie.raskin@senate.state.md.us, christopher.shank@senate.state.md.us, norman.stone@senate.state.md.us, bobby.zirkin@senate.state.md.us


Nine bills are scheduled to be heard by the Environmental Matters Committee on Feb 18 at 1pm, with a transportation subcommittee meeting immediately after.

- A bill to REPEAL SPEED CAMERAS, House Bill 551.   The repeal bill is sponsored by Delegate Smigiel and 22 others.

- A bill sponsored by Delegate Jon Cardin (HB57), which makes major changes to the law, including fining speed camera contractors which issue erroneous tickets, ending the "bounty system", and requiring citations to provide evidence of speed that can be used in defense of an erroneous ticket.

- Two bills which penalize contractors for issuing erroneous tickets (HB 565 and HB 82)

- A bill which limits 'school zone' speed cameras to only operate on school days (HB 429).

- A bill requiring speed cameras to capture video clips which could be used to identify errors, and requiring that this evidence be made available to defendants. (HB526)

- A bill by Delegate Braveboy (HB662) authorizing the state to conduct audits of local speed camera programs.

- A clone of Senator Robey's bill, HB929, is sponsored by the committee vice chair Delegate Malone.  The committee will need to be convinced to put the vice chair's "decoy" bill aside in order for any serious reform legislation to stand a chance of getting to the House floor.

- A bill applying only to Baltimore County requiring speed cameras to be proximate to flashing warning lights (HB650),

On Feb 25 two more bills are scheduled to be heard by Environmental Matters:
- A bill (HB 1288) which has forty six bipartisan sponsors calls for quarterly audits of all local speed camera programs.  No hearing has been set for this bill yet.

- Another  sponsored by Senator Glen Glass, HB 1360, would require the first citation issued to an individual to be a warning.

Any speed camera bill must be passed by Environmental Matters before it can go to the House of Delegats for a vote.  The members of the Environmental Matters Committee can be reached at the following email addresses:
maggie.mcintosh@house.state.md.us, james.malone@house.state.md.us,
pamela.beidle@house.state.md.us, elizabeth.bobo@house.state.md.us,
rudolph.cane@house.state.md.us, alfred.carr@house.state.md.us,
david.fraser.hidalgo@house.state.md.us, barbara.frush@house.state.md.us,
jim.gilchrist@house.state.md.us. anne.healey@house.state.md.us,
patrick.hogan@house.state.md.us, jay.jacobs@house.state.md.us,
stephen.lafferty@house.state.md.us, herb.mcmillan@house.state.md.us,
doyle.niemann@house.state.md.us, wayne.norman@house.state.md.us,
anthony.odonnell@house.state.md.us, charles.otto@house.state.md.us,
shane.robinson@house.state.md.us, dana.stein@house.state.md.us,
cathy.vitale@house.state.md.us, michael.weir@house.state.md.us,
ct.wilson@house.state.md.us

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Baltimore's Speed Camera Paradox

Baltimore's mothballed speed camera program recently made national news when a secret audit leaked to the Baltimore Sun showed error rates averaging ten percent -- forty times the rate of errors previously claimed by the city -- with a few cameras having error rates of 30-50%.  Mayor Rawlings Blake appears to be in denial over the severity of the problem.  Some members of the city council have been rightfully critical of the Mayor, and particularly of the city's attempts to cover up the audit.

Certainly city officials deserve all the criticism they are getting for having tried to keep this audit secret, and for allowing such a high rate of errors to go unnoticed for so long before the press got involved.  But how did all the errors happen in the first place?  And how could the rate get so high?  Wasn't the public told that these cameras had been tested and calibrated and blah blah blah... just like every other speed camera program in the state has claimed?  How can 'properly calibrated' equipment have such a high error rate?

Well, it turns out there is a perfectly valid reason why the results of the audit are not only plausible, but are COMPLETELY PREDICTABLE if you have a device which produces a relatively small (say one time in 400) rate of 'false positives' when run in the real world (as opposed to in a testing lab).  It has nothing to do with the TYPE of equipment being used or whether it is based on Radar or LIDAR or something else.  Rather it involves a little thing called Bayes Theorem.
This is something they teach everyone in a first year "Probabilities and Statistics" class, and what it says is
"The Probability of 'A given B' equals the probability of 'B Given A' times the probability of 'A' divided by the probability of 'B'.

What on earth does that have to do with speed cameras?

Well, let's say we have a traffic pattern with vehicles to speeds that form a typical 'bell curve':

And let's say in this example, that 98% of vehicles are traveling below the ticket-threshold, and just 2% above it.  We don't have actual data for Baltimore's camera sites, however this is what the SHA recently told WTOP that the percentage at their sites was, and 2% or lower is plausible based on what other jurisdictions have asserted.  Remember, we are talking about vehicle speeds directly in front of a known speed camera site, in often congested urban/suburban traffic, not speeds people would travel on an open freeway at 7am on a Sunday.  So in this example, most drivers are clustered near or below the speed limit.

Xerox has blamed these particular errors on what they call "radar effects", which is not an error of the device but rather is a result of interference, absorption, reflection, and refraction of radar waves.  Basically, it has nothing to do with calibration.  The cameras in Baltimore PASSED ALL THEIR CALIBRATION TESTS with flying colors, even on the same day they produced obvious errors.

Let's say the rate of serious radar effects is 0.25%.  That means one time in 400, the device produces a 'false positive', giving a speed reading bad enough to be over the ticket threshold, falsely 'flashing' a non-speeding car.  That rate is low enough you will probably never spot it through sporadic testing.  If they did it every day and saw it come up once in a year, they'd probably just re-run the test, not see it next time or the 100 times after that, and just declare everything OK.  But the point is the rate of false triggers is not zero, and no amount of calibration tests under controlled conditions will change that because it is caused by things external to the device.

Note that we are not talking about the sort of error where it says you were going 47mph but you were really going 46.  That is just the limit of the precision of the device.  If you were driving 1mph below the ticket threshold, you should probably have guessed that you might get a ticket anyways.  We're talking  about the odds of a sporadic but BIG error, a complete nonsense speed reading, like the ones in Baltimore which gave tickets to stationary cars and which clocked big-rig trucks at twice their actual speed.

So going back to Bayes Theorem, we have the following probabilities:
  • P(A) = the probability that a randomly selected car is NOT speeding = 98% (0.98) 
  • P(B) = the probability that a randomly selected car will get a ticket = 2% (0.02)  *
  • P(B|A) = the probability that a randomly selected car car will get a ticket GIVEN THAT it was not speeding = 0.25% (0.0025).  This is the rate of 'false positives'.
We want to calculate the rate of errors among tickets, so:
P(A|B) = the probability that a random TICKET RECIPIENT was not speeding

P(A|B) = 0.0025 * 0.98 / 0.02 = 0.1225  which is ** 12.25% **

So in this example your rate of erroneous tickets is not 1 out of every 400, it is actually 1 out of every 8.

What this means is that the rate of errors for the system as a whole will be many times greater than the false positive rate for an individual speed measurement.   If the number of 'negatives' (non speeders) is 50-100 times greater than the number of 'positives' (ticket recipients), then for whatever rate of errors you deem to be "acceptable", the device needs to be two orders of magnitude more accurate than that or you will end up with an 'unacceptable' rate of erroneous tickets.

This well known phenomenon is called the 'base rate fallacy' the 'false positive paradox'.  If you apply a very small percentage of false positives to a very very large sample size which is mostly 'negative', you are still going to get many more errors than you would think.

If city officials or their contractor thought 1 error out of 400 readings was not something to be concerned about, then given the vast number of non-speeders passing dozens of cameras hundreds of days per year it would easily have added up to the 70,000 errors in one year which their audit estimated they had experienced.

And the fact that the error rate for the system will far higher than the rate of errors of the device is something which would apply to ANY speed camera program NO MATTER WHAT TECHNOLOGY THEY USE.  Other speed measurement technologies have their own sources of sporadic errors, but "math" does not care what the cause of false positives is.  If I had said we have a LIDAR device which only had a one in a thousand error rate due to 'sweep errors' and 'reflection', or other phenomenon (rather than radar effects), but that only 1% of people were driving over the ticket threshold, we'd still have a ten percent rate of erroneous tickets.  And all from devices which passed every single calibration test and which would be unlikely to show any errors even if you ran several hundred tests on it.

It is also worth noting that the number of people who DISPUTE tickets is far smaller than those who RECEIVE tickets (maybe 1-2%).  As such a defendant who is disputing a ticket might have an even higher probability of being innocent than an average ticket recipient, if you assume that most people who know they were speeding just pay.  District court judges are probably basing their estimate of a person's chance of being innocent on their belief in how accurate an individual speed measurement is, and are either ignoring or unaware of the fact that they are dealing with a very small subset of a very small subset of total speed measurements.  This failure to consider prior probability when judging the chance of guilt is called the 'prosecutor's fallacy', and this fallacy is part of the reason that most of the time ticket recipients have no chance of convincing the judge they were not speeding unless they have some very compelling proof.

Of course Bayes Theorem doesn't explain all the cover ups and secret meetings or attempts to clamp down on whistle blowers.  Nor does it explain the indifference of city officials to the initial reports of errors, or why this went on so long, or why the public had been kept in the dark when errors were first discovered.  But it does go to show that if you are running a speed camera program, it pays to study math.

----------------------------------------------------------
* 2/10/2014: We used the rate of tickets, rather than the rate of 'violators', and assumed a value of 2% for simplicity.  In reality the rate of tickets will depend on the rate of false negatives (ie people driving over 12mph who are not cited).  This involves a slightly different calculation, still based on Bayes Theorem:
P(A) = Probability of not being over threshold
P(B) = Probability of being detected as speeding by system
and 
P(A|B) = P(B|A)*P(A)/[P(B|A)*P(A) + P(B|~A)*P(~A)]
In this case let
P(B|A)  = 0.0025 (False Positive Rate)
P(A)    = 0.98 (98%)
P(~A)   = 0.02 (2)
P(B|~A) = 0.9975 (True Positive Rate... in this example we assume the false negative rate is the same as false positive)
P(A|B) =  .0025 * .98 / ((.0025 * .98)+(.02*.9975)) = .109375 or 10.9% 
or using a lower true positive rate (if it is not possible to capture every violation with a certain type of device) of say 0.877 (87.7%), then
P(A|B) =  .0025 * .98 / ((.0025 * .98)+(.02*.877)) = .122561  or 12.25%
So yes, the false negative rate also affects the overall error rate.

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.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Baltimore Official Sought to "Tap" Whistle-Blower's Email

The Baltimore Sun reports that city officials asked to "tap into" emails of an employee suspected of leaking a "secret" audit of Baltimore's former speed camera contractor.

Baltimore City had conducted an audit of their now shut down speed camera program run by contractor Xerox Corp, and had refused to release the audit to the press in response to Public Information Act requests.  The Baltimore Sun was nevertheless able to obtain a copy of the audit, which revealed that one in ten citations issued by the city may have been in error and showed an error rate forty times greater than the city originally claimed.

The Baltimore Sun obtained an email written by James Harkness, the head of the division which oversees the city's speed and red light camera program:
"Were you able to tap into email records of the individual I suspect of being the 'source' in Luke's article?" Harkness asked Transportation Director William M. Johnson, referring to Sun reporter Luke Broadwater. 
Kevin Harris, a spokesperson for the mayor, gave the following explanation of this email:
"Mr. Harkness was mistaken in his use of the term tap," Harris wrote, "because that term implies that work communications belong to the employee, when in fact those communications belong to the city and are already subject to monitoring to guard against abuse of city equipment as well as ensure employees are doing their jobs while on city time." 
[...]
The city "takes seriously any improper or unlawful use or release" of information that could impact city government, Harris said, adding that he cannot comment on "specific or potential" personnel issues. "This is not to say that any employment or personnel action is or is not taking place," he wrote.
Read complete story in the Baltimore Sun.

Mayor Rawlings-Blake is apparently still determined to restart the city's program.  The mayor has requested another $160,000 in funding to pay for "traffic engineering analysis and reviews" for it's speed and red light cameras.  The city has already paid $2.2 million to speed camera contractor Brekford corp for new speed cameras which are not being used, and a $600,000 settlement cost.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Calls for Speed Camera Audits Increasing

Delegate Aisha Braveboy (D, Prince George's County) has called for a review of speed cameras used by the Town of Morningside and is sponsoring legislation which would audit speed camera programs, according to a report by WTOP.

"The vendor has obviously had issues in another jurisdiction, and if Brekford continues unchecked, this is going to be a problem for Morningside. It's incumbent upon Morningside to hold their vendor accountable. We have to demand accuracy," says Braveboy.

"Morningside is running the risk of having additional tickets throw out. I think that's a problem for them, for Brekford and the integrity of all speed cameras. Out of fairness to everyone, having an independent study done would probably yield results that people would be more comfortable with."

Delegate Braveboy is the representative for Morningside's legislative district and is a candidate for Maryland Attorney General.

Braveboy has sponsored a bill entitled House Bill 662.  The bill would require speed camera programs to turn over copies of their annual calibration certificates to the state.  It also says that the governor "may" require a local jurisdiction to obtain an independent audit of their program.