Speed camera flaws provide vindication for complaints

Questions about accuracy raised in Baltimore

November 28, 2012|Dan Rodricks

Two and a half years ago, I wrote a column about getting nailed by a speed camera in Baltimore for the first time, and, let me tell you, did the righteous readers of this newspaper — people who never ever ever drive over the speed limit — give me a load of grief. They accused me of being a danger to society and of using precious space to grind a personal ax in public. They believed in the machines.

Around the 50th email, I had to stop reading what a loathsome guy I was on account of my delicate condition. It was a dark moment. I felt like the late Bob Irsay, the reviled owner of the long-gone Baltimore Colts who famously uttered from his ruddy jowls: "Whaddaya hang me for? I'm a good Catholic. Where the hell did all this come from?"

I was a little shell-shocked.

I almost never use this space for personal stuff. (I mean, I didn't even write about the parking ticket I got on Calvert Street a few weeks ago. My pay-to-park receipt was good until 9:08 a.m.; I arrived at my car at 9:10, with the meter-reader writing me a ticket, which she issued at 9:12 a.m. The fine was $32. But did I report this heartless and ridiculous act? Did I decry it as a money-grab? Did I suggest that the city adopt a five-minute grace period before zapping citizens for an extra 32 bucks? No. That wouldn't be me.)

But I decided to write about the speed cam that got me because I didn't think it was legit.

The speed camera in question had been deployed on the edge of a cemetery populated by many dead people and one live guy with a lawn mower.

It was summer, with no school or schoolchildren in sight. (Speed cameras were supposed to have been set up in school zones.)

The camera started issuing citations immediately, instead of 30 days after its deployment, as the city had pledged it would.

I had questions about the camera's accuracy.

But almost nobody wanted to hear this.

With only a few exceptions, the mail on that column was all sneering and scoffing and stop your whining, you detestable miscreant. If the camera had clocked me at 40 mph in a 25-mph zone, then the camera must be right, and I should pay the $40 and keep my pie hole shut.

I had had no idea that so many of my fellow Marylanders never push 40 in a 25 mph zone, or 77 in a 65. And, man, could these people get on a high horse about those who do.

Well, well, well ...

It's right about now that I hear the voice of Mr. Potter, the evil man played by Lionel Barrymore in Frank Capra's "It's A Wonderful Life," when he says to the ashamed and desperate George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart: "Look at you. You used to be so cocky. ... You once called me a warped, frustrated, old man! What are you but a warped, frustrated young man? A miserable little clerk crawling in here on your hands and knees."

OK, maybe that's not the most appropriate quote to use at this point.

But it's certainly seasonal, and it's in my head because I've seen that movie, like, a million times, and the quote evokes what I'm feeling after reading all these recent stories in The Sun about speed cameras in Baltimore.

Turns out, some of the cameras weren't as accurate as they should have been, causing thousands of erroneous citations to be issued.

And it appears that some of the cameras might not have been placed where the Maryland General Assembly intended them to go — that is, close enough to schools to make the streets safer for the children walking to and from them.

The speed cameras of Baltimore have issues. It's possible the one that nailed me near the cemetery had issues, too.

It's also quite possible, as I write this, that some of the readers who dismissed my complaints in 2010 are having second thoughts.

We're turning speed enforcement over to machines owned by companies that make money each time one of us gets nailed for going 12 mph over the limit — or maybe not 12 mph over the limit.

Local and state officials want us to trust the machines. But, as revealed in just a limited survey, it sounds like the machines aren't always right.

What do we do?

The city and the counties can more rigorously test the machines and file accuracy assessments at three-month intervals with the state comptroller, who can post the results online. That would certainly help.

But — pardon this warped, frustrated middle-aged man — until we remove the profit motive from this whole operation, a lot of us will remain suspicious, even as we drive gently past the graveyard.

drodricks@baltsun.com

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