AAA calls on counties to audit speed camera programs

Baltimore councilman calls for hearing on secret audit that detailed high error rates

  • As 2013 began, Baltimore officials were trying to fix a troubled speed camera system. A Sun investigation had found that some cameras had been issuing faulty tickets and that government officials knew about it. The system — once among the largest on the continent — has been offline since April and will likely remain mothballed for months, officials said.  The absence of the once-lucrative program has left a budget shortfall. Baltimore anticipated $14.4 million in fines that never materialized, a gap only partially offset by not having to make about $4 million in payments to contractor Brekford Corp.  Brekford replaced original contractor Xerox State & Local Solutions, which acknowledged last year that several city cameras had an error rate of around 5 percent. The new vendor said it could only reduce those mistakes by replacing the cameras with newer models.  But by April, the city halted the new system. The Sun had found that a camera on The Alameda was citing motorists for exceeding a 25 mph limit when the posted limit is 30 mph. Soon after, local officials said they would throw out more than 6,000 appealed speed camera tickets because Xerox stopped showing up in court to defend them.  After tests showed the system sometimes produced inaccurate speed readings and listed incorrect information about paying a citation, the city said in December that it plans to pay Brekford $600,000 to end its five-year contract.
As 2013 began, Baltimore officials were trying to fix a troubled… (Christopher T. Assaf, Baltimore…)
January 23, 2014|By Luke Broadwater, The Baltimore Sun

Driver advocacy group AAA Mid-Atlantic and some lawmakers urged local governments to conduct audits of their speed camera programs Thursday after learning that a secret audit last year of Baltimore's program documented far higher error rates than previously disclosed.

"We really don't know how widespread this problem is," said Ragina Averella, AAA Mid-Atlantic's manager of government affairs and a member of the city's speed camera task force. Averella said other jurisdictions across Maryland should "absolutely" audit their programs to check the accuracy of the $40 citations.

"If it's a significant issue in other jurisdictions, we simply don't know," Averella said.

The Baltimore Sun reported Wednesday that the city's speed cameras likely charged motorists for thousands more erroneous tickets than previously disclosed, according to data in a never-released audit conducted for the city last year.

Consultant URS Corp. evaluated the camera system as run by Xerox State and Local Solutions in 2012 and found an error rate of more than 10 percent — 40 times higher than city officials have claimed. The audit identified 13 cameras with double-digit error rates, including one at Loch Raven Boulevard with a 58 percent error rate.

The city camera system has been shut down since April, but some City Council members said the city should have revealed what the audit found and taken steps to issue refunds to all motorists who wrongly got citations.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's administration declined all day to answer questions, but issued a statement Thursday night playing down the audit's importance, calling it an "inconclusive report that does not reflect any final conclusions about the accuracy of the speed camera program."

"It is false to insinuate that the city sought to keep the public in the dark when we acted quickly to take the speed camera program offline due to errors," Kevin Harris, a mayoral spokesman, said in the statement.

City Councilman Carl Stokes called Thursday for an investigative hearing into the audit, which administration officials received in April and never disclosed. The administration continues to refuse to release the audit, a copy of which was obtained by The Sun. Stokes said he wants to place officials under oath and find out what they knew about the audit and when they knew it.

"The audit of the program was paid for by the citizens of Baltimore and the citizens should be able to view the audit's findings," Stokes said in a statement. "It took a whistle blower to leak [the report]. We want to see the entire audit."

City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said he was "disturbed" that The Sun obtained a copy of the audit while the administration has refused to provide it to him. He said he remains committed to relaunching a speed camera program in Baltimore, both for safety and to provide city revenue. "We just need to make sure that these tickets are actually correct and that the citizens have faith that we're doing the right thing."

For the audit, URS Corp. looked at a sample of nearly 1,000 tickets from a random day in 2012 at 37 of the city's 83 speed cameras. More than 10 percent were found to be in error.

The city issued roughly 700,000 speed camera tickets at $40 each in fiscal year 2012. If 10 percent were wrong, 70,000 would have wrongly been charged $2.8 million.

Throughout 2012, city officials repeatedly claimed the error rate of their 83 cameras was "less than a quarter of one percent" in response to a Sun investigation that documented erroneous speed readings at seven cameras.

The audit found that a camera in the 1000 block of Caton Ave. had a 35 percent error rate. A device at the 6500 block of Eastern Ave. had a 45 percent error rate. And a speed camera in the 5400 block of Loch Raven Blvd. had a 58 percent error rate.

Like AAA's Averella, some City Council members and a Baltimore County senator have said the audit's findings show other jurisdictions should audit their speed camera programs. More than 40 municipalities in Maryland, including cities and counties, use speed cameras, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

The State Highway Administration — which uses the cameras to monitor speed in its work zones — said it would speak with the drivers organization about the request. But Baltimore County and Howard County argued against auditing their systems.

"There is absolutely no indication that Baltimore County's speed cameras are inaccurate," said county spokeswoman Ellen Kobler. "Our Police Department calibrates every camera every day, and a small, highly trained staff of sworn officers carefully reviews each individual citation for accuracy."

Howard County's government argued Thursday that such an audit of its cameras is unnecessary.

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