Thursday, August 17, 2017

Opinion: Montgomery County's "Admit Nothing, Keep the Loot" Policy

Frequently, we at the Maryland Drivers Alliance find ourselves criticizing programs like Baltimore City's speed camera program, which had a long pattern of issuing erroneous citatinos.  But in fairness, we rightly should give credit to Baltimore's photo enforcement program for one thing: in at least some cases in the past, Baltimore City's program has ADMITTED to making mistakes.  And in the most recent instance where Baltimore messed up on the first day back in business by issuing hundreds of erroneous duplicate tickets, they voided or refunded all those tickets.  It's appropriate to point out that at least in some cases, Baltimore City's program did the right thing by admitting to errors and issuing refunds when they were in fact at fault.

There have been other cases such as in speed camera programs in Greenbelt and Hagerstown, where the cities refunded at least some citations and admit the truth after annual calibrations were allowed to lapse.  While we have in the past cited these as examples of things programs have done wrong, we should also rightly give these programs credit for NOT simply hiring a team of attorneys to cover their tracks and finding a way to keep improperly gained ticket revenue.  When an agency breaks the rules, the ethical thing to do is to void or refund all the tickets, not to argue that it is OK for the government to break the law or to try and invent bizarre legal loopholes to justify an improper action or errors after the fact.

Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett
But not all programs believe in admitting mistakes and refunding tickets.  And the prime example to that is the "model" photo enforcement program in Montgomery County.   The Montgomery County Government wrote the book on the principal of "Admit Nothing and Keep the Loot".  In the "Baker vs Montgomery County" case, Montgomery County spent thousands of dollars worth of taxpayer money fighting for the principal of government immunity, successfully establishing the legal precedent that no matter what a speed camera program does wrong, no matter what defect might exist in their system, no matter what rules, standards, or laws were broken by a local government, in Maryland a photo enforcement program cannot be sued to compel refunds.  Thanks to this ruling, in Maryland, "The Crown Can Do No Wrong".

We have observed this program living up to the "ideal" of "once you have their money, never give it back".  When it was discovered that Montgomery County had been systematically failing to record daily calibration logs for their equipment, the agency's initial response was to state "we're not going to do those tests every day", and to not issue refunds for the THOUSANDS of citations which had been issued without valid calibration records.  Years later, we confirmed that the legally required calibrations did not exist, and the citations issued on those days had never been refunded.   When we asked Montgomery County's  "Ombudsman" (who was in fact the deputy director of the speed camera program and not in any way independent) to investigate this matter, to which he eventually responded "As Montgomery County’s Local Designee, I will conduct a review of citations issued on weekends and holidays during 2009, 2010, and 2011 to determine whether or not it was systematically the case that the Montgomery County Police issued speed camera citations for violations that occurred on days when no daily set-up logs were filled out and signed, and no Montgomery County operators were on duty.  And I will provide you, Mr. Ely (the requestor) with a written response describing my findings."  More than a full year later,  we have yet to see the "findings" from this "investigation" by the "Ombudsman".  Two complaints sent to the "Ombudsman" about this in October of 2016 were never responded to.

It seems little has changed.  When it was discovered that a red light camera in Montgomery County had a yellow light time at a red light camera shorter than the current SHA standard, the county refused to talk to the press or to void or refund any tickets.  No, instead it appears what the agency did was #1) admit nothing #2) argue that they were not out of compliance so long as they got into compliance eventually #3) keep the money from those tickets.  Worse yet, the agency lied to the Maryland Public Information Act Compliance Board about database records we had requested from the agency which would document exactly how many citations were the result of noncompliance with this standard.  The fact that we DO know that after the light was lengthened in response to our investigation citations dropped 50% -- that by itself should be enough to establish that there is good reason these records should be made public for a closer examination.

An open letter sent to Ike Leggett expressing our concerns about this was ignored.  Instead, the agency has sought to try an legalize their behavior after the fact, alternately claiming they can choose an alternative standard to follow, or that the times recorded by their own equipment showing a short yellow light time were simply incorrect, or that .  Even after an investigation by the Montgomery County Inspector General confirmed that 13% of yellow times did not meet this particular standard, the county continues to throw expensive taxpayer funded legal resources into circling the wagons, rather than admitting fault, producing the public records we have requested, and refunding tickets.  Likewise, when a Maryland state delegate wrote to Montgomery County to complain and to call for these citations to be refunded, and the county similarly rebuffed this request.

This approach of saying "it is still legal because we have forever to come into compliance" is an approach taken by another "model speed camera program" -- the SHA's "Safezones" program.  When it was discovered that the SHA had failed to have their speed camera equipment independently calibrated -- as the law explicitly requiress -- for the first nine months of their program, a fact confirmed  in 2012 by the SHA's own audit, their excuse was that they could use that equipment for a full year before doing so.  And like Montgomery County, the SHA never refunded those tickets issued for the 9 months were this equipment didn't meet this required standard clearly written into state law.

Apparently, what constitutes a "model'' photo enforcement to some organizations is to surround your program with attorneys and PR agents who will "make it legal" after the fact whenever you break the rules.  Again and again we see programs assert arguments based on "government immunity", or "ignorance of the law is an excuse" or "the law only means we need to EVENTUALLY come into compliance".  Do automated traffic enforcement programs hold motorists accused of a violation to this standard?  Would Montgomery County void your ticket if you argue that you have "sovereign immunity" or "I didn't know I needed to make a full stop before a right turn" or "I promise to give up speeding for lent next year"?  Then why is it acceptable for a local government program whose purpose is to enforce the law to follow the principal that they are above the law, or worse, that they can make the law mean whatever they want in whatever way happens to produce the most revenue?

Why would a "model" program set the example of keeping that revenue at all costs, even when rules were not followed in ways that may have wrongfully entrapped motorists?  Is it OK to corral defendants of individual photo enforcement tickets into "speed camera days" and "red light camera days" with literally A HUNDRED CASES assigned to a single judge in one morning, making it impossible for due process to be followed or for judges to give genuine consideration to the legal merits of defenses?  Is it a "model" for these programs to continuously push for the burden of proof against motorists to be lowered, until there is essentially no legal defense one can offer in such an "assembly line" hearing?  Is it OK for such a program to schedule secret meetings which ban critics from attending, form secret "citizens advisory boards" which have been exempted from the Open Meetings Act to discuss speed camera legislation, or to lie to state compliance boards to withhold records from your critics?  This is not a "model" for a program run with integrity, but instead is "model" for allowing other local governments to break the law any time they choose in ways that generate more money.

In the cases where some local governments have issued ticket refunds, those agencies could have stood on the "Baker vs Montgomery" ruling and forced each individual ticket recipient to defend their own $40 ticket in court, costing that person more than the value of the ticket to do so, knowing few would do so.  The burden of proof on these agencies is so incredibly low that they might even have been able to throw legal resources at this and found a technicality that would let them uphold even the most outrageously bad tickets in district court.  And they maybe could have withheld records of anything really embarassing about their errors from the public, their critics, and the press.  They could have followed the lead of the "model" photo enforcement programs.  And, I suppose, if the Maryland Drivers Alliance and the press isn't able to watchdog them all the time, if public officials believe they have nothing to fear from motorists at the ballot box, if they believe they can quietly sweep it under the rug, then the next time some local government issues hundreds or thousands of bad tickets, they might well choose to follow Montgomery County's "model" instead of doing what is right and fair and which doesn't place local governments above the law.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Baltimore's Speed Camera Program Screws Up On Day One

Baltimore City's speed camera program issued $38,480 worth of erroneous citations on the first day the program resumed after being shut down since 2013 due to previous errors, according to a report by the Baltimore Sun.

Baltimore City's speed camera program had been shut down since 2013 due to systematic errors by their program, including tickets given to stationary vehicles, and big rig trucks falsely cited for traveling at twice their actual speed.  Two independent audits of Baltimore's speed camera program found that 5-10%. of tickets issued were actually due to errors, with tickets going to vehicles that were in fact not speeding.  Baltimore's contractor at the time was forced to admit to the errors and the program was shut down.

The city's speed camera program began ticketing again on July 31, 2017 with a new vendor, American Traffic Solutions.  However on the first day in operation, the cameras coughed up hundreds of duplicate citations, citing
Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh
Unfortunately the July 31st violation file was submitted twice, causing two notices to be sent for some of the violations that were captured on that day,” company spokesman Charles Territo admitted in a statement. 

Before being shut down in 2013, Baltimore's speed camera program was bringing in $20million/year in revenue.  Mayor Catherine Pugh had welcomed the return of the speed camera program.  But City Comptroller Joan Pratt objected to the program's restart and abstained from the vote to restart the program, stating that she was not confident the program would be run correctly, according to the Baltimore Sun.

Oh Baltimore Speed Cameras, such memories you bring back for us....




Saturday, August 5, 2017

Traffic Improvement Project for I-270 Begins

On July 11, Governor Larry Hogan announced the start of construction of the $97.71 million I-270 interchange project at Watkins Mill Road. This major congestion relief project will improve one of Maryland’s most heavily traveled roadways in Montgomery County, benefiting tens of thousands of travelers who drive the I-270 corridor.
As we kick off construction of the new Watkins Mill interchange, we are delivering a much-needed missing link – a new east-west route across I-270 that improves access to the Metropolitan Grove MARC Station and supports the planned growth and economic development in this region,” said Governor Hogan. “We are making sure Maryland will continue to be open for business, and we are helping the citizens of Montgomery County, and people all across the state, go about their daily lives in a faster, more efficient, and safer manner.
The 1.25-mile project extends between MD 124 (Montgomery Village Avenue) and the Great Seneca Creek crossing near Game Preserve Road in Gaithersburg.
Source: Office of Governor Larry Hogan


Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Montgomery County Red Light Violations Drop 50% After Yellow Light Retimed

Violations issued by a Montgomery County red light camera declined more than 50% after the yellow light timing was increased in response to concerns raised by local media and by the Maryland Drivers Alliance that the light did not meet standards set by the SHA.  However the county government is refusing to issue refunds even after the Office of Inspector General found 13% of traffic signals had yellow lights out of compliance with current Maryland SHA policy.

The red light camera located at Georgia Avenue at Seminary Road was issuing citations for the left turn lane displaying a yellow time of only 2.9 seconds, which is shorter than any yellow light in the US is supposed to be timed at under any circumstances. After further investigation, it was discovered that the Maryland State Highway administration had adopted a policy that traffic signals should be timed according to a specific formula, and that regardless of the calculations no light should be shorter than 3.5 seconds (the formula requires a higher yellow time in most cases where the speed limit is greater than 35mph).

In 2016, county officials refused to talk to WJLA news about this traffic signal on camera, but initially told the station and the Maryland Drivers Alliance that the SHA policy was new in 2015. In fact, this policy had been established in 2003. When the Maryland Drivers Alliance asked the county to explain why they had initially claimed the policy was new, the county Automated Traffic Enforcement Unit (ATEU) manager refused to provide an answer. The county claimed the signal was timed to 3 seconds, not 2.9, however both the Maryland Drivers Alliance, WJLA, and the county's own equipment timed the actual yellow light at slightly shorter than 3 seconds. 

The County has also acknowledged that yellow light times have been calculated by applying speeds lower than the speed limit, which is explicitly a violation of Maryland SHA regulations for timing yellow lights.  This produces yellow light times shorter than what the correctly applied formula would produce if Maryland regulations were followed.  The County has also rounded the results of these calculation down to the nearest half second, when is also prohibited by state regulations.  The net result is that some traffic signals in Montgomery County had been configured with yellow light times for left turn signals shorter than the correctly applied regulations call for.  However the county DOT and ATEU continue to admit no fault in the timing of these lights, citing standards used by other jurisdictions outside Maryland which are less stringent than the SHA's adopted standards.

Under scrutiny from the media, in December of 2016 the county department of Transportation increased the left turn signal yellow time for the signal at Georgia Avenue at Seminary Road to 3.5 seconds. Since then this camera saw a marked drop in violations compared to last year.

Between January 2016 and May 2016, the red light camera at Georgia Avenue at Seminary Road issued 1500 citations. For the same five months in 2017, the first full months after the signal timing change, this same camera issued only 719 citations, a 52% decrease. Every month in 2017 the citation issuance rate was lower than the same month in 2016, according to statistics the county publishes to their website.



Most other cameras were not retimed and did not see a similar large decline during the same time period.  You can see the original red light camera data reports taken from the Montgomery County Website here:

Numerous studies have shown that longer yellow light times significantly reduce the rate of red light running, and that in fact a short yellow light can literally CAUSE a red light running violation.  In this particular case, the 50% reduction in violations occurred after the yellow time occurred after a yellow time increase of ONLY ½ second in ONLY ONE LANE. 

Based on the reduction in tickets, this camera was producing approximately $11,000 per month more revenue before the left turn signal yellow light was retimed to comply with the SHA's 3.5 second minimum.  For the first ten months of 2016, the camera at Georgia Avenue at Seminary road with the 4rth highest grossing camera in the county.  For the first 5 months in 2017, after the signal timing change, it dropped to the 12th most profitable.

Other yellow light times in Montgomery County may still be set shorther than the properly applied SHA standards. The county government's written statements have defended the application of standards less stringent than the SHA's adopted policies, indicating that this was done at numerous other locations.  A report by the Montgomery County Office of Inspector General confirmed that the SHA policy was in fact adopted by the state in 2003, and concluded that 13% of traffic signals in Montgomery County had times which did not meet the SHA's 3.5 second minimum timing policy. It's not clear at this time whether the OIG investigated whether other times failed to meet the formulas specified by the SHA, in addition to simply meeting the 3.5 second minimum.

The Maryland Drivers Alliance sought to obtain more detailed data than is published to the county website showing “yellow times” and "red times" for individual citations.  This would have documented precisely how many violations were directly attributable to the yellow times at red light camera locations for this left turn signal, and would have made a detailed engineering study into the impact of applying the SHA yellow light timing standards compared to the more lax standards used by the Montgomery County Government. However the Montgomery County Police Department initially declined to provide such data, and has asserted there is no public interest in releasing such data and imposed a $19,000 fee. After we appealed that fee to the Maryland Public Information Act Compliance Board, the ATEU Manager lied to the MPIA Compliance Board, falsely claiming that data was not stored in a database, in order to justify the excessive fee. While the board agreed the $19,000 fee was excessive by 90%, the Montgomery County Attorney asserted they were not obligated to extract the data from the database even if we paid the fee. As the MPIA compliance board's authority was limited to fees, the matter of our MPIA request remains only partially resolved and has been appealed to the Circuit Court.

Unfortunately if you receive a red light camera citation in Montgomery County due to a short yellow light, you probably have no legal recourse.  Even though the state's red light camera law explicitly states that the agency which times lights is required to ensure that yellow times meet standards “adopted” by the SHA before red light cameras cameras are deployed, the ONLY defense which the Montgomery County District Court generally accepts is if your car was stolen and you can prove it, as this is the only defense explicitly stated in the law.  District Court Judges, who are generally assigned 100 or more cases heard in “assembly line” manner in a single “red light camera day” session, often refuse to hear ANY legal arguments regarding whether it is a defense if a light was improperly timed. The agency has no burden of proof under Maryland law to prove that the traffic signals comply with state law and SHA's adopted standards, and in most cases the ONLY defense which the district court will consider is if you can prove your car was stolen.  Further biasing the court against defendants, a "court fee" is paid only by defendants into the budget of the District Court ONLY if the defendant is found guilty. The Montgomery County Government in particular has worked tirelessly to ensure that the law and the procedures governing citations ensure recipients of photo enforcement citations have no chance defending themselves, even when the government has failed to follow the law.

As for the fines collected at this camera location which have been out of compliance with SHA policies for years, the county government plans to keep the loot and is refusing to issue refunds. Apparently the Montgomery County Government believes that ignorance of the law is an excuse... if you are the government. 

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Baltimore To Restart Failed Camera Program

Baltimore City officials will be restarting their failed speed and red light camera programs and have selected some of the same companies who previously calibrated and run cameras which had issued thousands of erroneous tickets to innocent motorists.

Baltimore City will be hiring three companies to run the new program: American Traffic Solutions will run the speed camera program, Conduent will run the red light camera program, and MRA Digital will be hired to calibrate the speed cameras.

Baltimore City had shut down their speed camera program in 2013 after it was proven that cameras run under contract with their speed camera vendor Xerox State and Local Solutions were systematically producing faulty speed readings.  Among the cases of errors identified were large trucks cited for traveling at twice their actual speed and stationary vehicles cited for speeding.  Documents obtained by the Maryland Drivers Alliance proved that the city was aware of faulty speed readings for months before it became public knowledge, but had continued issuing tickets from those same cameras.  After an in depth investigation by the Baltimore Sun, the city and their vendor were forced to admit to the errors, claiming they were caused by what the company called "radar effects".  An internal city audit found that some speed cameras had error rates as high as ten percent, meaning that many thousands of erroneous tickets had been issued.

This was but one of many problems plaguing the city's old photo enforcement program.  In one instance, Baltimore Red Light Camera program was found to have issued 2000 citations "signed" by a deceased police officer.  Despite having been "approved" by someone who was not even alive at the time, documents obtained by the Maryland Drivers Alliance showed that Baltimore City never refunded those red light camera tickets and the city and their vendor kept the revenue.

After the disaster with the old Baltimore City program, Xerox recently spun off their camera division into a new company called "Conduent" in order to shed the stigma which the Xerox name had earned within the speed camera industry.  Conduent has now been selected to run the new red light camera program in Baltimore City.

Baltimore City had previous problems with vendor American Traffic Solutions as well.   In 2009, when Conduent was operating under the ownership of Affiliated Computer Services, the company filed a federal lawsuit against ATS for refusing to turn over red light camera equipment in Baltimore

In addition, Baltimore City will be bringing back the same company which calibrated the cameras which systematically produced erroneous speed readings: MRA Digital.  MRA Digital was awarded the "sole source" contract because it was stated that they were the only company in Maryland capable of calibrating the speed cameras as required.  MRA Digital was the same company which signed the speed camera calibration records for the devices which issued erroneous .  The Maryland Drivers Alliance requested speed camera calibration records for some cameras which had been proven to produce errors.  The calibration certificates signed by MRA digital president Heinz StubbleField for the very same camera which ticketed a stationary vehicle showed that the camera had "passed" all of MRA digital's tests.
Calibration Certificate for a speed camera which ticketed a stationary car in Baltimore City

Such calibration certificates are taken as absolute proof of the accuracy of equipment by District Court judges who hear speed camera cases, and motorists are generally not even permitted to use the same images used to incriminate them to dispute the recorded speeds if they do not support the speed reading.

Companies bidding for the contracts hired lobbyists to pressure City Hall and the DOT to restart the program.  For example ATS paid $20,000 to lobby city officials between February 22, 2016 to December 31, 2016 to help win their portion of the deal.

Another company, Hillman Communications, will be paid a $625,000 slice of the red light camera program to establish a "public information and outreach campaign" in order to help snow the people of Baltimore and Maryland into forgetting Conduent's part in the last failed program.  Speed camera programs have often times built massive PR and media campaigns to quell opposition to their programs, for example ACS (which eventually became part of Xerox/Conduent) promised to help plant favorable news stories in local media outlets for Montgomery County's speed camera program when they bid for that contract.

The city claims that this time the program will be run differently, and no doubt Conduent and MRA digital would claim they have resolved whatever problems they might have had.  The Maryland Drivers Alliance is of the opinion that motorists have no reason to believe this is true.  In fact, cameras operated by Xerox and calibrated by MRA digital continued to produce erroneous speed readings in other jurisdictions well after Baltimore City's speed camera program was Shut down.  In 2016, we reported that the City of Rockville, which used Xerox now Conduent as their vendor and used MRA digital to calibrate equipment, issued a speed camera ticket to a non-speeding school bus.  Records obtained from the city showed that they vendor had also voided several other tickets due to citation images showing "no progression" (ie no movement).  Baltimore County also used Xerox (now Conduent) and MRA digital, and in January of this year we reported that Baltimore County also had ticketed a stopped vehicle for speeding.  The Local Designee for Baltimore County's program admitted to us that their vendor had dismissed dozens of citations showing "no progression" (ie no movement) in the speed camera images.

If equipment calibrated by MRA digital can STILL claim that non-speeding and even NON MOVING vehicles are speeding, what is the basis for telling the public "if you don't speed you won't get a ticket" and for going into a court of law and claiming that the fact that a camera was "calibrated and tested" proves that you are guilty?  The basis for that claim is simple: the burden of proof under Maryland's speed camera law has been lowered to the point that you are presumed guilty and a motorist won't be able to dispute an erroneous speed reading unless by odd chance their vehicle was completely stationary.  Indeed, many involved in local speed camera programs in Maryland have tried rewriting history by claiming that the problems in Baltimore City consisted of just a handful of cases involving stationary cars, precisely so they could make that claim and deny errors involving vehicles that were moving but not speeding.  We believe residents of Baltimore City and Maryland should be concerned that the only lesson Baltimore City officials have learned may be that next time they should not admit it when errors take place so they can keep collecting the loot without interruption.

Additional Coverage:
TheNewPaper.com: Baltimore, Maryland restarts Faulty Speed Camera Program
Baltimore Sun: Baltimore to award nearly $10 million to two companies to restart speed, red light cameras
Baltimore Brew: Xerox subsidiary and Arizona firm set to operate speed camera program

Monday, March 27, 2017

Speed Limit Reduction Bill Advances

Do you believe your state lawmakers actually drive 20mph?

A bill which would allow Montgomery County to lower the speed limits on many roads to 20mph has passed the House of Delegates and approaching a vote in the State Senate.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Washington Post: Justice takes a turn for the worse with certain roadway cameras

Columnist
Anyone who has been to traffic court knows the chances of beating a traffic-camera citation are slim to none. But those of us who appeared before Prince George’s District Court Judge Mark T. O’Brien a couple of weeks ago caught a rare break.

After noting that 90 percent of the cases that day involved right-turn-on-red citations, O’Brien announced to a nearly packed courtroom that he would reduce the $75 fines to $22.50 in court costs.

“The purpose of red-light cameras is to keep people from running through red lights, for obvious reasons,” O’Brien said. “But using them for right turns on red, I’m not so sure.”

Entire article at:
https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/justice-takes-a-turn-for-the-worse-with-certain-roadway-cameras/2017/03/05/6c31a29c-01ca-11e7-b9fa-ed727b644a0b_story.html?hpid=hp_regional-hp-cards_rhp-card-columnists%3Ahomepage%2Fcard&utm_term=.acb7c2b33ab7

Our challenge to Montgomery County, Prince George's county, and the City of Rockville:  Deploy signs stating "Right Turn on Red AFTER STOP" at three of the six RLC locations with the highest red light running rates, and provide the results after six months.  If this photo enforcement policy is about safety, it would be irresponsible NOT to do this.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Green Means Stop? Legislature Near Passage of "Blocking The Box" Bill

The Maryland Legislature is near passage of a bill with the claimed purpose of combating "blocking the box" by making is a crime to enter an intersection on a green or yellow light if the vehicle cannot "safely and completely" clear the intersection before a light turns red, according to an article on WTOP.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Delegate Al Carr Wants Photo Tickets for "Vehicle Presence"

Delegate Al Carr(D, Montgomery County), is seeking to create a brand new type of photo enforcement which will issue citations for the mere presence of a vehicle.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Speed Camera Repeal Legislation

A bill repealing the authority to use speed cameras and red light cameras (House Bill 536) is scheduled for a hearing on February 23rd in the the House Environment and Transportation Committee.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Washington County Officials Say Speed Cameras Should be Used to Generate Revenue

Apparently missing the memo that they should never (publicly) acknowledge that cameras are about revenue, some officials in Washington County openly stated that speed cameras should be used for the specific purpose of raising money.

Washington County Sheriff Doug Mullendore argued to the Washington County Board of Commissioners that the county should add speed cameras for the purpose of generating revenue, according to an article in HeraldMailMedia.com.  Mullendore said speed-camera revenue will remove the "need for doing any kind of a fire tax currently".   Mullendore had previously pitched speed cameras in April 2013 as a way to support what was then a proposal to fund a day-reporting center, according to the article.

Chief Financial Officer Debra Murray said after the meeting that the proposed operating budget includes $2 million in projected speed-camera revenue.  County Administrator Greg Murray said people will say a speed-camera program is used to generate revenue, "and there is no denying that".

Mullendore said that the government gets 60 percent of the revenue, while the contractor gets 40 percent.  (Despite legislation passed in 2014 was suposed to "end the bounty system" which paid the vendors a specific cut of each ticket.)

Read complete Article in HeraldMailMedia.com

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Open Letter To Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett: Your Short Yellow Lights

Dear Ike Leggett,

The Montgomery County Executive website lists among the guiding principals of your staff "Adhering to the highest ethical standards", "Being open, accessible, and responsive" and "Being Accountable".  If this is truly the case, how can you possibly condone the county's photo enforcement program profiting from red light cameras where yellow lights were set shorter than SHA standards for the past 13 years?

Whether intentionally or unintentionally, the Montgomery County Government did have some red light cameras where yellow lights were shorter than standards set by the Maryland SHA.  So I hope you will do the right thing and insist on setting matters right by refunding the money to motorists who were wrongfully ticketed by your red light cameras which did not meet those standards.
In 2003, the traffic engineers at the SHA set a policy stating that the minimum time for yellow lights in Maryland should be no less than 3.5 seconds and they specified how the ITE formula for computing yellow times should be applied. That policy, as described in Appendix B of the SHA Signal Timing Manual, explicitly states that this was meant to apply to red light cameras.  The tables and formulas in the Signal Timing manual make it 100% clear that a yellow light on a 35mph road on level grade (such as the intersection at Georgia Avenue at Seminary Road) should have a FOUR second yellow time, not 3 seconds, and that ALL intersections should have yellow times of no less than 3.5 seconds.

References:
That policy clearly states that a certain formula is to be used in computing yellow light times, and states that under no circumstances should a speed lower than the speed limit be used when applying that formula.  It furthermore documents that it was the intent of Maryland's red light camera law to apply this specific standard where red light cameras were used.

After I first became aware of traffic signals which had been set shorter than this back in October, the Montgomery County DOT stated that this 3.5 second minimum was only recently "implemented" in 2015.  Members of the press accepted this statement on faith that the policy was only recently created.  When I later learned this standard had in fact been set in 2003, not 2015, the SHA told me I would need to ask the county to explain this discrepancy.  I did ask the county, but neither county DOT nor the MCPD would provide an explanation for this.

The fact is Montgomery County was putting safety at risk by failing to meet SHA signal timing standards.  The SHA signal timing manual states "the yellow change interval should be long enough so motorists can see the indication change from green to yellow and then decide whether to stop or enter the intersection."  To make that determination, drivers need some idea of how long yellow lights will be, they need lights to be timed consistently to a level that gives ALL motorists --- not just those with the fastest reflexes under ideal conditions but ALL motorists under ALL conditions -- adequate time to either stop or go.  Setting a yellow light too short can literally CAUSE a red light running violation.  Short yellow lights increase the rate of red light running, this has been proven in study after study.  A study by the Texas Transportation Institute found that "An increase of 0.5 to 1.5 s in yellow duration will decrease the frequency of red-light-running by at least 50 percent." If Montgomery County could cut red light running at a traffic light by FIFTY PERCENT simply by making yellow lights longer, why exactly would you not do so immediately?

Your Automated Traffic Enforcement Unit has argued this policy did not need to be implemented until the next time the traffic lights were maintained or calibrated.  I don't see why that is the case based on the documents I have read, but the SHA has confirmed to me that the policy was adopted in 2003, over 13 years ago.  Between 2003 and 2015 several yellow lights had been retimed to 3 seconds by the Montgomery County DOT.  These lights did not meet the bare minimum of 3.5 seconds the SHA standard requires, nor did they meet the 4 or more seconds the table in the signal timing manuals call for.


Montgomery County, as a matter of policy, says that they can issue red light camera citations for as little as one tenth of a second after a light turns red, literally a "blink of an eye".  That policy IS intentional.  The images and telemetry from an alleged violation showed a yellow light time, as recorded by your ATEU's equipment, of 2.9 seconds.  Frankly it really shouldn't matter if that time is 2.9 or 2.997 or 3 seconds when the standard set by the SHA is a minimum of 3.5 seconds, when the ITE formula computes a yellow time of over 3.5 seconds at 35mph, and when the table in the Signal Timing Manual calls for 4 seconds.

The fact is that before motorists complained and before the press got involved, Montgomery County had decided to take its good sweet time complying with this standard.   They might NEVER have complied and continued putting safety at risk for years if they hadn't been caught.  When a reporter from WJLA asked the county to speak about this,  NOBODY from the county would speak on camera.  All the county offered were various forms of "we admit nothing".  No tickets were refunded or voided.  The county has accepted no responsibility for this whatsoever.  The reward for the motorist who was the first to have enough courage to speak out about this was simply arrogant statements to not run red lights, followed by lies, followed by having the ATEU manager to tell her that she should not have talked to the press.

The county's refusal to refund or void the tickets is outrageous enough, but their refusal to accept responsibility for failing to comply with safety standards is absolutely infuriating.  Perhaps the scariest thing of all was that engineers at the Montgomery County DOT were completely unaware of other standards in the Signal Timing Manual, such as making allowances for heavy vehicles like buses and trucks.  If the use of "bare minimum" yellow times was being applied across the board for 13 years, one wonders how many other deviations from traffic engineering standards a thorough investigation would reveal.

I asked your Automated Traffic Unit to provide records of yellow light times and related data for violations captured by one of the cameras in questions.  That MPIA request was initially denied, and a second attempt at obtaining the documents was met with a fee for $19,000.  In response to my complaint about this to the MPIA compliance board, a member of your staff gave the compliance board false and misleading information that certain records I requested did not exist.  That kind of obstruction and lack of transparency isn't what people should expect from the Montgomery County Government

Even if the County's failure to apply the SHA standard to these lights was accidental, the Montgomery County Government's decision to "keep the loot" was NOT.  This was a matter of policy, a policy I have seen applied by Montgomery County in the past.
Other jurisdictions in the state have issued refunds when they made mistakes.  College Park did so very recently, when they erroneously issued tickets from a camera where the wrong speed limit was posted and were confronted about this by the press.  College Park didn't bring in a big team of taxpayer funded attorneys to circle the wagons and invent legal fictions so they could avoid returning the money.   They admitted their mistake, refunded the tickets, and moved on.  People accept that mistakes happen.  However failing to admit mistakes and then make things right is something the public should not need to accept from their local government.

Montgomery claims to run a "model" photo enforcement program.  But the measure of a  "Model" photo enforcement program is not their ability to maximize the number of tickets they issue, nor is it measured by the program's determination to prosecute every single citation even when the county failed to hold up its own obligations in the process.  It is measured by how fairly, transparently, and ethically that program is run.

The ethical thing for a "Model" photo enforcement camera program to do is refund or void these tickets.  The ethical thing is not to hide behind the Office of the County Attorney's huge team of over 40+ lawyers who will "make things legal" for you after the fact, and allow the county to keep the ill-gotten revenues these short yellow lights brought in.  The ethical thing isn't to assume the county government can get away with whatever they do simply because private citizens cannot afford to match the resources of the county's taxpayer funded legal machine.  The ethical and fair thing is not to rest assured that defendants going to district court will be unable to afford an attorney who understands the district court's "speed camera day" rules... rules which have been heavily weighted against those defendants.  The ethical and fair thing isn't to say "they admitted guilt by paying the tickets" to those who already paid, when the truth is they simply didn't know about this issue, or were frightened away by horror stories of the kind of "justice" photo enforcement defendants receive in district court.   If you have never watched those hearings in progress, where judges sometimes blow through 50-60 cases in just one hour, then you cannot truly understand how this program you helped to create actually works.

I make no money running the Maryland Drivers Alliance website and never have, and I have no financial stake in whether or not these tickets are refunded.  But as a Montgomery County resident, I DO have a stake in whether or not the County government is committed to following the traffic engineering standards.  I DO have a stake in whether or not the County is committed to running itself in a transparent and ethical manner.  I DO have a stake in whether or not that includes setting things right when the county government has done something wrong, rather than just saying "admit nothing" and circling the wagons with attorneys.

I have tried over and over again since last October to persuade your automated traffic enforcement unit to do the ethical thing in this matter, to no avail.  I am asking YOU, our elected representative, one more time... 


Mr Leggett, please do the ethical thing and refund these tickets.

Sincerely,
      Ron Ely
      Editor, Maryland Drivers Alliance Website
      Montgomery County Maryland
===========================================
===========================================

Contact Ike Leggett and the County Council and tell them to do the right thing and REFUND THE TICKETS!!! 
ocemail@montgomerycountymd.gov
county.council@montgomerycountymd.gov

Monday, January 30, 2017

Montgomery County Pushes To Remove Traffic Engineers from Speed Limit Decisions

Annoyed by stubborn engineers who insist on using traffic engineering standards to set speed limits, the Montgomery County Delegation is seeking to remove traffic engineers from the decision process with legislation that which would allow the county to arbitrarily lower speed limits to 20mph without any traffic engineering justification at all for doing so.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Montgomery County Lied To State Public Information Act Compliance Board

Documents obtained by the Maryland Drivers Alliance reveal that the Montgomery County Government has made false and highly misleading statements to a state compliance board in response to a complaint filed by the editor of this website.

The Montgomery County Police Department repeated stated to the Maryland Public Information Act Compliance board that certain records sought by the editor of the Maryland Drivers Alliance website did not exist and were not located within a database, and thus could not be produced without performing a manual search costing tens of thousands of dollars and requiring months of time.  These statements was made repeatedly to the board by Montgomery County, however the vendor has clearly stated in writing that the requested data does exist in a database and is retrievable in a searchable electronic format.
 
The records were requested to investigate a concern about the duration of yellow lights at an intersection on a state highway in Montgomery County where red light cameras were used.  The editor of the Maryland Drivers Alliance website (Ron Ely), filed a Maryland Public Information Act request for a small set of records revealing the Yellow Time, "Red Time", speed limit, and other information which is recorded by red light cameras and which is available to recipients of red light camera tickets on a website (public.cite-web.com).  The county denied the request, stating that the data existed only on citation images and this was not disclosable.  We repeated our request, this time clarifying that the data was located on a website, not images, and also agreeing to remove some data from out request.  Montgomery County Automated Enforcement Manager Richard Hetherington again denied our request.

Screen shot showing where requested information
is displayed in a digital format
We submitted a new request, this time specifically requesting the data from a database and referencing a specific portion of the Public Information Act, GP §4-205(c)(5) which states : "If a public record exists in a searchable and analyzable electronic format, the act of a custodian providing a portion of the public record in a searchable and analyzable electronic format does not constitute creating a new public record."  This provision was added to the MPIA in 2011 for the specific purpose of allowing public access to records stored in a database.   The county responded that they would only produce the documents in the form of printing over 5000 individual citations and redacting all information EXCEPT the requested information, that this would require over 700 hours of time and that the fee for doing so would be $19,310.24. 

The county responded that they would only produce the requested records
by printing over 5000 individual citations and redacting everything
except small unreadable print... for a fee of over $19,000
The requested information does appears on citations underneath "thumbnail" images on citations, in font so small that it is barely visible on original citations and would likely not be readable at all after citations were redacted and re-copied.  The agency furthermore stated that the request would not be satisfied for 18 weeks, despite the fact that the MPIA requires documents to be produced within 30 days, or up to 60 days only if the requester agrees to a request for an extension.

Ely filed a complaint with the Maryland Public Information Act Compliance Board, which has authority to review "excessive fees" over $350.  In their written response to Compliance Board, Montgomery County stated: "The information that Mr Ely is seeking is embedded in a photograph as a type of time stamp" and "The third allegation that Mr Ely makes it the amount of time required to complete the task he is requesting....What he has failed to acknowledge, in both our written and oral conversations, is that the information he is seeking is not stored in a database format."  The county furthermore stated that they lacked the "capacity" to extract data from databases.

In our reply to this, we specifically pointed out that our request was specifically NOT for the production of citations, and that the data we requested was located on a website in a tabular format rather than as an "image" or embedded document.  We provided technical details which demonstrated that it was impossible for this data to be stored only in citation images given the way it was rendered, including providing the output HTML of the website and describing the technology used to render the data and that this could only be done if the data was stored in a searchable and analyzable format such as a database.   
Portion of the analysis showing requested data is NOT displayed on the website as an embedded image

However Montgomery County repeated their claim that the data did not exist in a database: "Therefore, once again, the citations that were generated by violations that occurred during the window that he is requesting are the records he is seeking" (despite the fact we had clearly stated they were not)  "Neither the County nor Xerox State and Local Solutions has a need to shore this information in a data base that can be queried or searched as it is not", a statement they made despite the fact that the ww.public.cite-web.com website is included on citations as the means by which ticket recipients can view the data we requested.

The requested data would reveal significant information relevant to public safety, such as whether or not the county's failure to conform to a State Highway Administration policy requiring all yellow lights to be set to a minimum of 3.5 seconds resulted in a higher rate of red light running.   However in their filings Montgomery County repeatedly argued there was no "public interest" in the disclosure of this information, casting aspersions against Mr Ely's character and professional abilities and against a reporter who had separately investigated the issue of these yellow light times in the process.

In a teleconference meeting of the MPIA compliance on January 9th, Montgomery County repeated their assertion that the citations were the only format in which the requested data was maintained and that the data did not exist in a database, and claimed that the raw information used to generate citations was not retained after citations were issued.  Mr Ely referred back to another statement made by the County in their filing to the board: "Our system, on the citation in question, registers a time of 2.997".  The "yellow time" as shown on the citation being discussed was 2.9, with only 2 decimal places of precision.  It is technically impossible for a value with 4 digits of precision to be read from the citations which only showed 2 digits. When confronted by a board member about when the vendor gave them this information, ATEU manager Mr Hetherington eventually acknowledged that this was after they had received the public information act request... a request which had been sent weeks after the citation was issued.

The board requested that the County ask their vendor whether the requested data existed in a database.  The Vendor responded : "In response to the letter dated Jan 11th, 2017, in which there was a request on if the information pertaining to the Yellow Time, Speed Limit, and Red Time data is stored in a database, the answer is we do have access to this information".  The vendor furthermore stated that it would take 18 hours to extract the information, far less than the over 700 hours the agency proposed in their response to our request, indicating that the vendor clearly has the "capacity" to extract records.

However the Montgomery County Government remained unapologetic and adamant in their position despite the fact that their false statements that the data was not retrievable from a database had been proven.  The county continues to assert that they had no obligation to extract the electronic records and disclose them despite any decision the board might make.  Associate County Attorney Hayley Roberts wrote "First, the creation of this database is the creation of a record, which the MPIA specifically says the County does not have to do." (a statement made the fact that the vendor acknowledge already having access to the information in a database.) "Secondly, the creation of this record would be completely outside the scope of the issue before the Board, as the issue before them is whether the $19,000.00 fee is reasonable. Third, neither the vendor nor the County have any use for this record, and the only reason that the County inquired with the vendor was due to a request by the Board. However, that inquiry should not in any way act as an agreement by the County that we are going to create a new record to comply with this MPIA request. " (despite the fact that the MPIA explicitly says that extracting records from a searchable and analyzable format is NOT "creating a new record").

The matter is still pending a decision by the Public Information Act Compliance Board.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Toll Rate Cuts Cost Less Than Expected

New data released by the MDTA showed that toll rates cuts introduced last year reduced overall revenues by only one percent, according to a report in the Baltimore Sun.

Between 2006 and 2014, Maryland saw large increases in toll rates at every facility, averaging close to 75%, including large toll rate increases in 2012 and 2014.  After Governor Hogan took office, the MDTA cut toll rates at most facilities.  While some facilities saw large decreases in revenues as a result, on the whole traffic at toll facilities increased and the total drop in toll revenue was only $5.1million, or one percent.  Toll revenues slated to finance new construction projects had been projected to decline, but data now shows the decreases were mostly offset by increased usage of toll facilities.  Only two toll facilities, The Bay Bridge and the Nice Bridge, saw revenues decline.  All other facilities, including the Inter County Connector and the Fort McHenry Tunnel, saw overall revenues increase despite the toll rate decreases.

Complete Coverage in the Baltimore Sun.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Maryland Considers Autonomous Car Legislation

Legislation has been submitted to the State Senate which allow the Motor Vehicle Administration to create regulations for registering and testing autonomous vehicles in Maryland.

SB-009 as initially submitted is very simple, and authorizes the administration, in consultation with State Police, to adopt regulations governing 1)  The inspection, registration, and safe testing and operation of autonomous and connected vehicles; and 2) the safe testing and operation of autonomous technologies on highways in the state.  However the effects of the technology could eventually be complex and profound.

Proponents of autonomous vehicles say the technology will ultimately be safer than human drivers and will enable people who cannot drive to have more mobility.  Dozens of companies are working on the technology, including well known efforts by Google and Tesla.  Some companies are investigating creating self driving trucks for shipping.  However there still exist many regulatory, liability, and technical constraints.  For example Google cars are deliberately limited to traveling at 25mph, and most autonomous cars still require a human driver to take over under certain circumstances.  There are also concerns about how well autonomous vehicles and human drivers will interact.

The fiscal policy notes for the bill recognize that there are different level of autonomy between full driver control and full autonomy.  About 20 states are currently considering legislation with respect to self driving cars.  The bill fiscal policy notes state "According  to  NCSL,  several  issues  that  states  are  considering include  liability,  appropriate  levels  of  insurance,  cybersecurity,  and the  application  of distracted driving laws for the individual who engages the autonomous vehicle."

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Baltimore County Cites Stopped Car for Speeding

Baltimore County issued a speed camera citation to a car which had stopped to allow an ambulance to pass for speeding, and then failed to identify the obvious error after the motorists requested the citation be reviewed.

The camera, located near the 2700 block of Putty Hill Avenue, snapped the photo in the evening of December 16 as the motorist had moved over to allow an ambulance to pass.  A short time later the motorist received a citation in the mail.

The photos clearly showed that while the ambulance progressed significantly in the 0.4 seconds between photos, and is significantly farther from the camera in the second image, the car which was cited had barely moved at all.
Citation Images have been redacted to protect the innocent
Baltimore County requires anyone who wants their citation review to fill out a form and send it to their citation review email address, which she did on December 28th.  She politely wrote to the County "Ombudsman":
"I explicitly remember that I slowed down from approximately 30mph and pulled over to allow an ambulance to pass.  I believe that the speed captured was that of the ambulance and not of my vehicle."..."the two images captured show that my vehicle has barely moved, but that the ambulance has moved a distance consistent with 45mph.  I ask that you please review all information you have, including any speed violation captured by the motion of the ambulance. I thank you for your time."

Despite the fact that the request pointed out the presence of the ambulance and the fact that her vehicle had barely moved, Baltimore County upheld the citation.  She contacted the Maryland Drivers Alliance, and then contacted the county again by email... this time copying members of the press, county council, and state legislature on her complaint.

A day later she received a response from Cpl Charles Schruhl, supervisor of Baltimore County's automated traffic enforcement unit, acknowledging the error and stating the citation would be voided.

Despite the fact that the citation was issued in error, and despite the fact that the citation was not identified as erroneous when it was supposedly reviewed by their "Ombudsman" after the nature of the error had been specifically pointed out, Cpl Schruhl defended both the accuracy of their equipment and their "Ombudsman's" citation review procedures:
"The “Ombudsman” request was handled properly based on their procedures and the requirements under the statute.  The system was operating properly.  However, you are correct in your statement regarding radar not being able to distinguish between the vehicles.  That has nothing to do with the “radar effects”.    This was not an error on the part of the radar, Xerox or the system itself but a limitation of radar in general."
While the county claimed that the "Ombudsman request was handled properly", neither the presence of a large bright red and yellow ambulance in the photos nor the fact that the motorist specifically referenced this in her review request raised any red flag for the reviewer.