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.