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.

The bill has been submitted as House Bill-0237 and Senate Bill-0779.  The bill has already passed the House of Delegates and is pending a vote in the state Senate.  The legislation is "a monument change in the right of way at intersections", according to supporters of the bill, requiring motorist to stop on green or yellow lights if they cannot be 100% certain of clearing the intersection before the light turns red.

If HB237/SB0779 passes, it would prohibit a vehicle at a green signal, green arrow signal, or steady yellow signal from entering an intersection "if the vehicle is unable to safely and completely proceed through the intersection".  The vehicle would thus be required to stop on a green light if it was uncertain whether it could "completely" clear the intersection.  Violation of this statute  would be a misdemeanor offense with a $500 fine.  Current Maryland law simply permits motorists to enter an intersection on a green light, and also permits entry into intersections on yellow lights because cars cannot stop instantaneously.  In many cases it is physically impossible for all vehicle to either clear an intersection or stop when a light turns yellow, which is why traffic standards create what is called an "all red' clearance interval, where nobody has the green light, after a light turns red.

The house version of the bill makes an exception for cases where "A vehicle making a left turn can enter an intersection while yielding the right of way to any other vehicle approaching from the opposite direction, and a vehicle making a right turn can enter the intersection while yielding the right of way to a pedestrian or bicyclist."  However  it does not make any exception for cases when the vehicle in front of you stops and you are forced to stop rather than "completely" clear the intersection in order to prevent a collision.  The legislation also makes no exception for not stopping on a green light for the purpose of avoiding being rear ended by motorists who expect vehicles to continue moving when a light is green.   The bill does not state how long motorists have to "completely" clear the intersection or whether this means "by the time the light turns red" or "eventually".  If strictly interpreted, motorists would either need to be able to predict the future, or else would need to wait until the car in front of them completely clears an intersection, in order to be 100% sure they can clear an intersection.

The legislation is being supported by the WABA (The Washington Area Bike Association) which has in the past pushed for various legislation which increases liability for motorists.  It is unclear how the liability issue would be affected by this legislation in a case where a cyclist runs a red light at the same time a motorist with a green light begins to enter the intersection.

The legislation does not explicitly state that it would authorize red light camera citations to be issued for such violations, but neither does it explicitly state that it would not.  In the past the District of Columbia has proposed introducing "blocking the box" cameras, which would enforce similar violations there, and this issue is frequently raised as a goal of that city.  In Maryland, the legislature never explicitly stated that red light cameras would be used to ticket for making slow moving right turns on red, or coming to a full stop slightly ahead of the white line, but some jurisdictions simply began doing so after concluded they could enforce those tickets, and now both of those practices have become increasingly common, in some cases accounting for far more than the number of straight through violations.

The legislation could be construed as changing this, making it a violation to enter an intersection on
The house sponsor of the bill, Delegate Al Carr (who is possibly the most anti-motorist lawmaker in the House of Delegates), also sponsored legislation this year that would have created a new photo ticketing system called "Vehicle Presence Monitoring Systems", which was withdrawn after an unfavorable public reaction.  The legislation is also being supported by the head of Montgomery County's speed and red light camera program, Captain Tom Didone.

Captain Didone, who runs the largest photo enforcement program in the state, said he wants to discourage the behavior of cars rushing into an intersection on a yellow light to avoid waiting another light cycle. “(It will be) a monument change of the right of way for light intersections,” Didone said.  Thus it apparently is in fact the deliberate intention of this legislation to shift liability to motorists with a green/yellow light AND to make it a violation for not stopping for YELLOW unless you can be CERTAIN the light won't change red (which might be physically impossible for a motorist to guarantee).

The bill also does not explicitly require that local governments do their part to avoid "blocking the box" conflicts by ensuring that "all red clearance intervals" be set according to standards.  Many motorists are unaware that traffic engineers are supposed to set an "all red" phase after a light changes from yellow to red, in order to permit adequate time for all vehicles to safely clear the intersection.

A recent investigation by the Maryland Drivers Alliance discovered that Montgomery County had not been following SHA standards for the timing of yellow lights and red clearance intervals at some intersections, producing yellow lights and red clearance intervals shorter than the formulas specified by the SHA.  In the case of Georgia Avenue at Seminary Road, one yellow light had only a 3 second yellow time and a 1 second all clearance red before a complaint was made by the Maryland Drivers Alliance about this noncompliance.  SHA standards called for a 4 second yellow on a 35mph road, and red clearance intervals of longer than 1 second would be required based on the width of an intersection of that type.  Even after the light was re-timed, it is not apparent that the methodology specified by the SHA is actually being used by Montgomery County on this state highway.  Given that we only investigated traffic signal timing at a limited number of locations with red light cameras, it is likely there are many other traffic signals where red light cameras are not currently placed where SHA practices are not being used by the county.

We found it particularly interesting that according to a report on WTOP, one of the bill sponsors and the head of Montgomery County's speed camera program spoke of intersections which had problems: "Both Carr and Capt. Thomas Didone, director of the traffic division of the Montgomery County police, pointed out a handful of intersections in Montgomery County where blocking the box affects the flow of traffic, including Georgia Avenue and Seminary Road; "   The Maryland Drivers Alliance does NOT consider this to be a coincidence that this specific intersection was named out of 600+ traffic signals in the county, at, as officials in Montgomery County are well aware that there has been a dispute over the timing of traffic signals at Georgia Avenue at Seminary road and other locations.  The Maryland Drivers Alliance suspects that Montgomery County and other jurisdictions may be seeking a way to to transfer the county's potential liability for failing to properly time lights onto motorists as a way of justifying non-compliance with SHA standards.  The Maryland Department of Transportation had not weighted in on the legislation at the time of the WTOP article.

The bill was already rushed through the House and is near passage in the Senate.  The Judicial Proceedings Committee has already heard this legislation, but can still be contacted.  The members of the Judicial Proceedings Committee are:

Find your OWN state lawmakers on


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.

You have probably already heard of "Speed Monitoring Systems" (more commonly called "Speed Cameras") and "Traffic Control Signal Monitoring System" (more commonly called Red light cameras).   House Bill 947 would allow local jurisdictions to deploy a new network of devices called (we are NOT making this up) "Vehicle PRESENCE Monitoring Systems".  Those devices are more commonly called.... NOTHING... because most people who don't stand to profit from photo enforcement would never even have thought an idea like this could exist or that it was even vaguely necessary.

The devices would be used to enforce "a state or local law restricting the presence of certain motor vehicles".  The legislation does not state WHICH state or local laws, or what "CERTAIN" motor vehicles means, or where this would apply, leaving it wide open to any such restriction any local jurisdiction might choose to create.  Would it be all vehicles?  Trucks?  Blue cars?  SUVs?  We have NO IDEA!  And there is no way that any of the lawmakers who would vote on this could possibly know either, because as written this could be ANY vehicle restriction which ANY local municipality comes up with at any time in the future.

Were a local government to misuse this legislation in some what, such as coming up with a restriction that motorists would not understand, that would be just tough on you.  The adjudication would be done in the same manner as speed camera citations, which is to say you won't stand a chance because the burden of proof has been explicitly lowered and dozens of cases might be assigned to a single judge in a 1-2 hour court session in assembly line fashion.  Citations would be issued to the owner, not the driver, and the only defense explicitly permitted under the statute is if you can prove your car is stolen.  The legislation states that citations can be mailed as much as 30 days after the violation, meaning a person could run up 29 more violations after the first one before even realizing the local restriction was in place.  Or they might get issued two citations in a row when the proceed down a street, realize there's a restriction, and then too late turn around.

There's no specific requirement in HB0947 that the local vehicle restrictions make any rational sense, or that it be related to any particular safety consideration.  The legislation does not even state whether the vehicles need to be moving.

An example of how deceptively written this legislation is can be seen in a portion of the bill which states "If a contractor operates a vehicle presence monitoring system on behalf of a local jurisdiction, the contractor's fee may not be contingent on the number of citations issued or paid."  This is intended to give the false impression of preventing any conflict of interest on the part of the vendor by not paying them per ticket.  In fact, this exact language was included in Maryland's original speed camera law, and almost every speed camera program in the state effectively circumvented that language simply by not using the word "operate" to describe what contractors do (even though they basically controlled the entire program and the hardware).  Of course Delegate Carr would absolutely have known this fact, and yet he deliberately included that specific wording in the bill just because he figured the public was too stupid to realize this.

It is more important to stop the bad laws from getting passed than to try to pass the good ones!   

The legislation is scheduled for a hearing before the Environment and Transportation Committee.
The members of that committee are:

Full Text of HB947

Update 2/26/17: Delegate Carr has withdrawn his "Vehicle Presence Monitoring System" bill after receiving negative feedback.  Good work!

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.

The bill SPONSORS who are pushing to end Maryland's corrupt and broken speed camera law, are:
Warren miller, Christopher Adams, Steven Arentz Jerry Clark, Mark Fisher, William Folden, Robin Grammer, Kevin Hornberger, Seth Howard, Susan Krebs, Susan Mccomas, Tony Mcconkey, Matt Morgan, Charles Otto, April Rose, Sid Saab, and Haven Shoemaker.  These lawmakers are the ones who want to REPEAL speed cameras.

House Bill 536 would ban both speed cameras and red light cameras.  Speed cameras have been particularly criticized since 2012 when it was discovered that Baltimore City has erroneously cited thousands of innocent motorists for speeding.   The city's own audit found that as many as 10% of all citations were due to errors, meaning 1 in 10 motorists cited were actually innocent of what they were accused of.  Cases included documented examples of "speeding" vehicles that were not even moving, and large trucks falsely cited for traveling twice their actual speed.  Local governments and speed camera contractors had previously lied, telling the public that their equipment could not be wrong because it was "tested and calibrated", and that "if you don't speed you won't get a ticket", even though speed camera vendor Xerox later needed to acknowledge that even properly calibrated equipment could be subject to what they called "radar effects".   Similar errors have been reported elsewhere in the state, including in College Park, Brentwood, New Carrollton, Forest Heights, Cheverly, and Montgomery County.

In other cases, in 2010 Montgomery County was caught systematically failing to perform required calibration tests on many days citations were issued, affecting many thousands of citations.  Montgomery County refused to refund any of those citations.  A promised review of this practice by the program's so called ombudsman was never provided.

By design, speed and red light cameras are issued to the owner rather than the driver of the vehicle.  This means that it is literally possible for someone to be found guilty in court even though there is no evidence that the person committed the violation, something which absolutely does happen even in many cases where there is evidence the person was NOT driving.

Legislation passed in 2014 failed to solve many such problems.  Just in the last year, we discovered that the City of Rockville had falsely accused the county's own school bus of speeding... a complaint only taken seriously because it was a county flagged vehicle that was falsely accused.  Records retrieve from Rockville showed other cases where cameras had fired showing "no progression".

In one a recent case, the city of College Park erroneously issued hundreds of citations from a speed camera which was configured to enforce the wrong speed limit.

In another recent case, Baltimore County issued a speed camera citation to a STATIONARY vehicle.  Even after the ticket recipient contacted the so called "ombudsman" for the program directly, .  Baltimore County has acknowledged to us that they are currently using the same model of speed camera which previously produced erroneous citations in Baltimore City, despite this history of errors.  They furthermore admitted that they have no review procedures in place for identifying speed measurement errors.

In Montgomery County, the District court hold only a single day to hear all speed camera cases, often piling 50, 60 or more cases.  In one documented example, a district court judge flew threw a "rocket docket" of 60 cases in only one hour, finding every single person guilty except a few police officers whom the judge gave a pass for speeding.  Defendants in those hearings are PRESUMED GUILTY.  All evidence the prosecution presents is accepted with no authentication, something normally required for court evidence, whereas defendants often have their evidence tossed out as "hearsay", creating an entirely imbalanced proceeding in which it is almost impossible for defendants to prevail regardless of their innocence.

The concepts of "presumed innocent" and "beyond reasonable doubt" totally DO NOT EXIST in this proceeding.  "Speed Camera Day" Judges almost never accept any evidence or argument that equipment could have been incorrect, even though NUMEROUS examples of erroneous speed readings by speed cameras have been documented judges simply accept as given that the speed measurement cannot be wrong.  Some judges have openly stated that they only defense they will accept is evidence that a car was stolen, and even in those cases the burden of proof is on the vehicle owner.  Defendant found guilty are charged court costs... paid into the District Court's budget ONLY for finding defendants guilty, meaning the court has a direct financial incentive to find as many defendants guilty as quickly as possible.

In the case of red light cameras, Montgomery County was recently found using yellow lights shorter than standards set by the SHA.  Short yellow lights can greatly increase the number of red light violations.  Montgomery County refused to refund any citations after this was discovered, and has opposed efforts by the Maryland Drivers Alliance to obtain public records showing exactly how many violations this might have cause.  This is completely consistent with Montgomery County's culture of secrecy surrounding their speed camera program.

In order for the speed camera repeal legislation to get a vote in the House, HB536 must pass the Environment and Transportation Committee... a legislative body which is largely dominated by jurisdictions which profit from speed cameras.  Tell the Members of the Environment and Transportation Committee to REPEAL speed cameras.  Tell them you want them to give House Bill 536 a FAVORABLE VOTE.

Environment and Transportation Committee Members:

Tell these lawmakers that speed cameras represent a TRAVESTY OF JUSTICE.  Tell them that if they truly support speed cameras, they should attend a Montgomery County "speed camera day" hearing in person and see for themselves the "meat-grinder justice" which the Maryland State Legislature has created.  Tell them that the concerns about speed cameras have NOT been solved. 

You can also find your own state lawmakers here.  Tell them that they should oppose ANY expansion of photo enforcement, including Montgomery County's SNEAKY BACK DOOR PLAN to expand speed cameras BY GREATLY REDUCING SPEED LIMITS.

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  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

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.

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.

      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!!!