City's lucrative speed camera program dogged by problems

Tickets cost drivers millions of dollars, but questions surround the effectiveness – and the evidence

  • Early morning traffic passes the North bound speed camera on Caton Avenue. Traffic that comes off of Interstate 95 heading north on Caton Avenue is immediately faced with a speed camera.
Early morning traffic passes the North bound speed camera on… (Christopher T. Assaf, Baltimore…)
November 18, 2012|By Scott Calvert and Luke Broadwater | The Baltimore Sun

The tractor-trailer hit 70 mph as it passed the Poly-Western high school campus on Cold Spring Lane, barreling down a turn lane at twice the legal speed limit. Or so the $40 citation claimed. Just before Falls Road, a pole-mounted speed camera clocked the truck with radar and snapped some pictures. A ticket soon went out in the mail.

On paper it seemed like just the kind of blatant, dangerous school-zone speeding violation that the ubiquitous enforcement cameras are designed to catch and deter.

Except the truck wasn't going 70 mph that September morning — or even fast enough to get a ticket, The Baltimore Sun determined after examining the camera's time-stamped photos and measuring how far the vehicle traveled. Simple math proves the automated camera was off the mark.

The camera had been misfiring for months, in fact. And city officials knew it.

Going back to last winter, the truck's owner got three other tickets from the same camera, and in each case the camera's own photos show the citations were wrong. Other truck companies report similar complaints: Same camera, same issue.

According to records obtained and reviewed by The Sun, the city government and its speed camera contractor discussed problems with that camera as far back as February, yet the device continued churning out thousands of speeding tickets.

"To put it in simple terms, it's not fair," said Michael Weiss, chief financial officer of the Naron Mary Sue Candy Co., whose trucks have gotten four tickets that photo evidence shows were inaccurate. "Nobody likes to get a ticket for something they didn't do, whether it's jaywalking or spitting on the sidewalk or speeding."

Since 2009, automated cameras aimed at nabbing and fining speeders have proliferated across Maryland, pumping out more than 2.5 million tickets in and around Baltimore and yielding more than $70 million in fines paid by motorists. The state government and Baltimore and Howard counties all operate speed cameras in the area, but Baltimore City's program has expanded to become one of North America's largest, with 83 cameras and more than $19 million in annual revenue.

When the city announced recently that it took in $4 million more than expected from speed cameras last year, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake told drivers to simply obey the law if they don't like them. The tickets, she said, amount to a "minor inconvenience."

They can also be inaccurate and the process unfair, The Sun found in an investigation that focused on the city's program but which also analyzed automated speeding tickets issued around the region.

While the city reaps millions from motorists who believe their only practical option is to pay up, the evidence used to issue speed camera tickets is not nearly as unimpeachable as many drivers and lawmakers think, The Sun found. Even some city District Court judges criticize the program.

In addition, city officials have put cameras in locations that flout state guidelines calling for placement near schools, and while they deny any violations of the law, they recently shut down five of the devices after being challenged about their compliance. Together those five cameras have generated 110,000 tickets.

Far more lucrative than city officials envisioned, Baltimore's speed camera system also suffers from spotty government oversight and poor record-keeping — and the data is mixed on whether the cameras have indeed made roads safer and resulted in fewer injuries.

Among The Sun's findings:

  • Tickets routinely fail to hold up in court in the city because of glitches in the data, the government's inability to produce evidence, the failure by police to weed out bad citations or obvious instances of motorists being wrongly accused.
  • Nearly 6,000 tickets have been deemed erroneous by the city because cameras were programmed with the incorrect speed limit or location address, or the equipment malfunctioned, resulting in several hundred thousand dollars in refunds and forgiven fines.
  • Baltimore has grown increasingly reliant on a private contractor for speeding enforcement, and for months government officials could not say how many tickets had been issued on the city's behalf.
  • While vehicle owners are mailed pictures that purport to show them speeding by at least 12 mph, the citations don't mention that most cameras in the city also record video — and that those videos can exonerate drivers in court.
  • Traditional police-officer enforcement has dropped since cameras were installed, yet more than 170,000 vehicles on area roads have been ticketed by the cameras enough times that those drivers' licenses could have been suspended if the citations hadn't been issued by a machine.

There also is little question that speed cameras have caught many thousands of drivers who were exceeding the speed limit on Baltimore-area roads. City officials say the cameras have slowed drivers and made roads safer.

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