City councilman calls for speed camera hearing

Sun investigation finds tickets can be inaccurate, process unfair

November 18, 2012|By Scott Calvert, The Baltimore Sun

The vice chairman of the City Council's public safety committee called Sunday for a hearing on Baltimore's vast and lucrative speed camera program after an investigation by The Baltimore Sun found that the $40 citations issued to motorists can be inaccurate and the process unfair.

"I'm angry because we have to do better in the way we operate city government, especially when we're talking about things that are going to impact taxpayers," said Councilman Brandon Scott, adding that he thinks the cameras make roads safer for schoolchildren when properly managed.

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, another speed camera supporter, voiced worries about the city's network of 83 cameras, which state law restricts to school zones. "I'm very concerned about the accuracy of the ticketing," she said.

Among The Sun's findings: The city continued to operate one camera months after learning it had issued an incorrect speed reading; city judges routinely toss out tickets for deficiencies; the city has long ignored the state's narrow definition of a "school zone"; nearly 6,000 tickets have been deemed invalid by the city; and citations don't inform motorists there may be video evidence that could exonerate them in court.

On Sunday, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's office declined to comment specifically on any of The Sun's findings. Instead, spokesman Ian Brennan issued a one-sentence statement saying a task force appointed by the mayor is "already convening to review virtually every issue raised in the article."

Brennan added that "we are confident that the Mayor's task force of transportation and safety experts will consider [any new findings] in its ongoing review to ensure the system is successful in reducing speeding [in] school zones."

One member of the task force, AAA Mid-Atlantic spokeswoman Ragina Averella, said she was unaware until recently that many of the speed cameras record video. The Sun reported that the snippets are played in court and sometimes cited by judges as grounds for dismissal. Many motorists find out only if they appeal a ticket, and Averella said the wording on the citations should be changed.

"As a matter of fairness and transparency, the motorists should know it exists, whether it benefits them or not," she said Sunday.

Averella criticized city transportation officials for failing to turn off a camera on West Cold Spring Lane after the city became aware that the device had incorrectly recorded a truck's speed. Officials learned of the problem in February, records show, yet the camera churned out thousands of tickets over the next several months and produced an inaccurate citation as recently as September, The Sun found.

"What's wrong with shutting it down and erring on the side of caution until you're able to figure out what the true problem is, rather than letting the camera continue to flash and cite motorists erroneously?" Averella said. "It simply doesn't make sense."

Scott said he would call for an investigative hearing during which council members could ask Department of Transportation officials about malfunctioning cameras and other issues with the city's speed camera program.

Early Sunday morning, the mayor's office announced that more than half of those caught by speed cameras in Baltimore during a recent 12-month period live outside the city.

Baltimore issued more than 680,000 citations in fiscal 2012, the mayor announced, and about 43 percent went to city motorists. About 6 percent were issued to out-of-state drivers. The tickets cite drivers who are recorded going at least 12 mph over the speed limit.

"This new data seems to indicate that motorists who do not live in the City of Baltimore are not getting the message to slow down on city streets located in schools zones," Rawlings-Blake said in a statement. "Pedestrian and traffic safety is a serious issue that we must confront, especially to protect students going to and from school."

Averella, whose organization represents motorists around the region, questioned the relevance of the figure, saying the city's goal should be to get drivers to slow down, regardless of where they live.

She said she thinks the reason so many suburban residents have received tickets in Baltimore is that the city has done a poor job marking the cameras with signs and puts many in areas not near schools. While state guidelines say cameras should be placed within 500 feet of a school, the city relies on a vague definition in state law that says a school zone is anywhere within a half-mile radius of a school.

In August, the city turned off five cameras that have produced about 110,000 tickets. City officials said they did so after AAA challenged the city for flouting another aspect of state guidelines restricting school zones to those serving kindergarten through 12th grade. The five now-dark cameras were put near colleges, across from hospitals with nursing students and close to church preschools, The Sun found.

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