Sunday, February 21, 2016

Baltimore County State Lawmakers Propose Bill to Increase Speed Camera Revenues

Legislation has been submitted by state lawmakers from Baltimore County which would increase speed camera fines by 25%, increase the hours of operation they can be used, and lower the speed threshold at which tickets are issued by 4 mph.  These changes would, if implemented, have the potential to transform Baltimore County's program into one of the most profitable in the state overnight.

**** UPDATE 2/26/2016: This legislation has been WITHDRAWN by the sponsors after receiving a highly unfavorable public response ****

The summary of the bill, House Bill 1035, states the purpose as: "Altering the restriction on the days and times during which a speed monitoring system in a school zone may operate in Baltimore County; decreasing from 12 miles per hour to 8 miles per hour the minimum number of miles per hour above a posted speed limit that a motor vehicle must be traveling in Baltimore County for the motor vehicle to be recorded by a speed monitoring system; increasing the maximum civil penalty for a violation recorded by a speed monitoring system in Baltimore County; etc."

The legislation would, for now, be limited only to Baltimore County.  If the legislation passes motorists in Baltimore County residents would be subject to several stricter enforcement provisions than the remainder of the state.

Bill Would Increase Revenues in Three Ways
Speed camera fines would be raised from $40 to $50, resulting in a 25% increase in revenues per citation.  The restriction against using speed cameras on weekends would be eliminated, allowing cameras to run from 8am-6pm on Saturday and Sunday, and from 6am-10pm on week days.  Changing the enforcement days from 5 days to 7 would likely increase the number of citations by 40%.

However the most significant change would be decreasing the ticket threshold from 12mph to 8mph.  This means that an individual in a 25mph school zone speed limit would get a ticket for being accused of traveling 33mph, at times when schools are closed.   This would likely result in Baltimore County collecting fines from several times as many citations as they currently do from each camera.
Illustration: Sample Traffic Speed Distribution
 Traffic speeds in a given area tend to form a "bell curve", centered below the citation threshold.  With a 12mph 'ticket threshold',  only a small percentage of vehicles is over the ticket threshold, but a large percentage (sometimes 50% or more) of citations are typically issued for only 1-2mph over the current ticket threshold, and the number of vehicles at a given speed increases greatly as you move towards the center of the curve (ie with each 1 mph decrease in the threshold, the number of citatable vehicles increases by more than the last), since a driver simply needs to look away from their speedometer for a shorter period of time to drift above the threshold.  This is particularly true since drivers traveling from elsewhere in the state, such as Baltimore City, would probably be unaware of the different implementation of the law in Baltimore County.

Baltimore County uses the same contractor, Xerox, as Baltimore City used before it's program was shut down due to errors. An audit of Baltimore City's program found that 10% of citations were due to speed measurement errors. Some errors documented by our own investigation showed errors of as much as 30mph taking place -- proven by videos taken at the site.  It is unknown how many errors in the range of 8mph a speed camera might produce, however due to the "false positive paradox" it is mathematically possible for a device to have a significant percentage of erroneous citation even when the chance of errors for each individual measurement is seemingly very low.

Baltimore County's program has not been without it's own issues.  In a recent report one motorist received a citation from Baltimore County for a vehicle he did not own.  We documented a similar such case of an erroneous citation in 2014.  In 2013, we reported how Baltimore County allowed the calibration on one of their cameras to lapse.  Baltimore county also failed to have their cameras certified by an independent laboratory at the beginning of their program, asserting that the manufacturer could certify their own equipment for the first year despite a requirement in state law for an "independent calibration lab" to perform calibration testing.

Under current state law, citations are issued to the owner of vehicles, even if that person was not the driver, which means a significant number of individuals receiving tickets are innocent as a matter of fact even when the system is working exactly as intended.

House Bill 1035 is sponsored by Delegates Chris West(R), Susan Aumann(R), and Pat Young(D).

The Red Herring
The editor of the Maryland Drivers Alliance website contacted Delegate West(R, Baltimore County) for comment about the bill.  West stated that the bill was intended to decrease revenues because it contains a "public service option".

The Maryland Drivers Alliance believes that while the public service could result in an extremely minor drop in revenues if it were the only change the bill, introducing it along with three major revenue enhancing provisions only serves to provide a "Red Herring" to distract away from the bill's major changes.  Currently only 1-2% of people take the time to contest citations in court, because the value people place on their time exceeds the cost of a ticket. In the best case scenario it is highly unlikely that enough individuals would choose to perform 5 hours of labor to offset just the 25% increase in the fine amount.  Since the County could set the requirements for completing and documenting this service to be arbitrarily difficult, and since performing and documenting the service would likely require publicly admitting to speeding, there is essentially no chance that revenues would decrease under this bill when combined with all three revenue enhancement provisions.

County Denied Request For Safety Improvments Cameras Failed To Deliver
Delegate West stated that the bill's provisions, including lowering the ticket threshold by 4mph, was meant to address speeding on one specific road in Baltimore County, where he claims vehicles continue to be recorded driving past a school at 40mph, even though a camera is now permanently deployed there.  40mph is above the current ticket threshold for speed cameras to issue citations on that road.  Delegate West stated that the County Executive has declined requests to install speed bumps or additional stop signs requested by the community.

The Maryland Drivers Alliance has cited the fact that speed cameras are used as an alternative to traffic engineering measures which do not produce revenues among our arguments against speed cameras.  Whether the speed cameras are an ideal traffic safety solution for this location would not seem to be certain, given that a 2011 report by the Baltimore County Police showed that there was no reduction in accidents at speed camera sites  in the first six months after speed cameras were deployed.

Former Governor Robert Ehrlich listed some of the same objections which we have in his veto message for Maryland's first speed camera law.  Most states in the US do not use speed cameras at all, and in cases when photo enforcement has been put to a referendum in the US voters have rejected cameras 34 out of 37 times.