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.

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 tried to convince the MPIA Compliance Board to uphold the excessive fee, by falsely claiming that data which was electronically stored could only be extracted by individually printing thousands of citations. While the board agreed the $19,000 fee was excessive by 90% after the vendor confirmed they did have the ability to query the data electronically, the Montgomery County Attorney asserted they were not obligated to extract the data from a 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.