Some city speed cameras have 5% error rate, Xerox says

Contractor says 5 cameras have stopped issuing tickets

December 14, 2012|By Luke Broadwater and Scott Calvert, The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore's speed camera contractor disclosed Friday that several of the city's automated cameras have been wrongly ticketing roughly one of every 20 passing cars and trucks.

Officials with Xerox State and Local Solutions told a mayoral task force studying the city's program that the five cameras have been idled and are no longer issuing $40 tickets after they found during a recent review that the devices had an error rate of 5.2 percent.

Those five cameras have generated at least 15,000 tickets, city records show, translating to $600,000 in potential fines for motorists.

In a letter to the city, Xerox manager Ryan Nicolas blamed the faulty speed readings on "radar effects" that he said can be caused by high-walled trucks — the same reason the company has given for inaccurate tickets issued as far back as February on West Cold Spring Lane near Falls Road.

The move to take the cameras offline means that 10 of the city's 83 speed cameras are no longer in operation. The city shut down five cameras earlier this year after questions were raised about whether their placement near colleges, hospitals and preschools met state guidelines dictating that they be placed in school zones.

Xerox officials said Friday that the balance of the city's speed cameras are still issuing tickets, after their review found that they have error rates of less than half of 1 percent. The company has bolstered its review process in an effort to keep erroneous citations from being issued to drivers, Nicolas said. Under state law, a police officer must approve every citation, and before that Xerox is responsible for weeding out unwarranted tickets.

Task force member Ragina Averella, a spokeswoman for driver advocacy group AAA Mid-Atlantic, said she was "really, really concerned about the entire review process," given recent reports of errors.

"My concern is: There are already numerous people reviewing these, prior to them getting to the police, and, obviously, numerous citations are still falling through the cracks," she said. "Are people really paying attention to this review process, or is it a simple rubber stamp? Something is clearly going wrong that these erroneous tickets are still being put in the mail and sent to motorists."

While acknowledging the distorting effects of trucks, Xerox maintains the underlying technology is sound. "We're confident there are no errors in the radar reading itself," said Allen Shutt, vice president of operations. He repeatedly referred to the system's problems as "isolated."

The company's review came after an investigation by The Baltimore Sun that found speed camera tickets in the city can be inaccurate and that city judges routinely throw out tickets for a range of deficiencies.

Shutt discounted the idea that motorists can fact-check tickets to see if they were in fact going at least 12 mph over the posted speed, the minimum threshold under Maryland law. "The average person can't go out and take a tape measure and determine the speed of their car based on the violation images," he said.

The Sun has used such a method to determine that seven city cameras have generated erroneous speed readings. Speed equals distance divided by time. Using the two time-stamped photos on each citation and clear pavement markings, The Sun was able to calculate each vehicle's speed — and then compare that to the recorded speed. City officials said they recently adopted a similar "reasonableness" method for verifying suspicious tickets.

Sometime no measurements are needed. The Sun reported this week that the city ticketed a Mazda wagon for speeding even though a video clip from the camera and two time-stamped photos given as evidence show the car sitting at a red light.

"If a vehicle is clearly stopped and not moving, it's not speeding," Averella said. "It's curious how that is falling through the review process."

The camera that caught the Mazda, in the 1700 block of E. Cold Spring Lane near the campus of Morgan State University, is among the five that Xerox said Friday are no longer issuing tickets.

At the same time, Xerox recommended bringing back online two other cameras that were put on hold late last month. One is in the 3800 block of Greenspring Ave. The other is the westbound camera on West Cold Spring Lane near the Polytechnic-Western High School complex — one of the seven found by The Sun to have issued tickets with erroneous speed readings.

Khalil A. Zaied, the city's transportation director, said he planned to hire a private engineering firm to study the city's cameras. He said about 350 tickets would be voided or refunded based on the company's internal audit.

Zaied also said he plans to meet with police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts to discuss concerns that police officers are not doing a substantive review of citations. The Police Department has said a single officer typically reviews 1,000 to 1,200 citations per day.

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