By Scott Calvert and Luke Broadwater, The Baltimore Sun
8:34 PM EST, November 29, 2012
City transportation officials said Thursday they are investigating a second speed camera on West Cold Spring Lane in North Baltimore after more questions were raised about whether it has been issuing inaccurate tickets to motorists.
The city and its contractor acknowledged earlier this month faulty speed readings of trucks on the stretch of road near Poly-Western High after The Baltimore Sun found erroneous tickets issued by an eastbound camera there. Thursday's comments came after The Sun provided the city with new evidence showing a westbound camera had wrongly ticketed a car that wasn't speeding.
The contractor, Xerox State and Local Services, initially said the problem on Cold Spring affected "an extremely limited number of high-profile trucks." But when cars are included, the two cameras together have generated more than 10,000 tickets in the past year.
"The Department of Transportation takes any possible indications of camera errors very seriously," agency spokeswoman Adrienne Barnes said in a statement. "Now that an issue with westbound Cold Spring Lane camera has been raised, our vendor will be conducting an investigation of this location."
Both cameras, affixed to poles by the high school campus west of Falls Road, continue to issue $40 tickets, though "with an additional verification process to review all citations," she said.
The new developments come after an investigation by The Sun documented problems with the city's lucrative speed camera program, including the findings that tickets can be invalid and judges routinely toss them out for deficiencies. City Councilman Brandon Scott has called for an investigative hearing, and other elected officials have voiced concern about the speed camera program.
City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young is worried about the accuracy of the cameras, said Lester Davis, Young's spokesman.
"You've got to have confidence in the integrity of the system," he said. "You've got to have a system that has integrity. The council is in the process of looking into this matter and the council president will be participating in that hearing."
The city and its contractor knew of an issue with the eastbound camera at least as far back as Feb. 7, when Utz Quality Foods complained about a ticket issued to one of its trucks. City officials and Xerox have since said radar distortion had caused errant readings for a small number of large trucks.
As recently as Sept. 4, that same camera issued a ticket to a tractor-trailer erroneously recorded going 70 mph, The Sun found in its investigation, published this month.
This week The Sun determined that a Subaru hatchback ticketed for going 56 mph westbound Oct. 5 was actually traveling just a mile or so over the 30 mph posted speed limit — the first indication that problems extend beyond high-profile trucks.
Despite mounting questions about the cameras, the city transportation official who chairs a mayoral task force on Baltimore's automated enforcement system says it's premature for the city to seek an outside review of the speed cameras' accuracy.
Barbara Zektick, the agency's legislative affairs director, said in an email that the task force "may like to recommend that an independent party evaluate the error rate."
"But there is little sense in using taxpayer dollars to do so at this time when the Department is transitioning from one vendor to another," she added.
In January, the city will switch to a new speed camera contractor, after three years working with Xerox. The city is expected to continue using the same 83 radar-equipped speed cameras that it has under its current contract.
Despite the problems uncovered by The Sun, the absence of conclusive data on the city's speed camera error rate makes it difficult to gauge how many motorists might have received invalid tickets under a program that has yielded around $40 million in paid fines since its launch in 2009.
City Transportation Director Khalil Zaied wrote in a letter to The Sun that the systemwide error rate is "less than a quarter of one percent." However, Barnes acknowledged Thursday that the figure is based only on the 6,000 known errors among the 1.6 million citations issued by the city. Officials have not conducted any studies to determine if cameras are making errors the city is not aware of.
"Citation errors are unacceptable, and we will do everything possible to ensure that the program continues to help reduce speeds and improve traffic safety in Baltimore," Barnes said.
The owner of the red Subaru, Chris Laird, didn't think he had been speeding the afternoon of Oct. 5 as he drove west past Poly-Western toward an entrance ramp to the Jones Falls Expressway.
"When I got the ticket, I was extremely surprised," said Laird, a University of Maryland medical student. "I guess I figured machines today don't make mistakes."
A car going 56 mph would travel 41 feet in half a second. But time-stamped photos taken by the camera — and offered by the city as evidence that the car was speeding — show it covered just under 23 feet, based on measurements taken by The Sun using clear pavement markings. That translates to a speed of 31 mph, meaning no citation was warranted.
Under state law, speed camera citations can be issued only when a vehicle exceeds the speed limit by at least 12 mph. Signs indicate the speed limit there is 30 mph.
A spokesman for Xerox referred questions about the Subaru to city officials.
Barnes said both cameras on Cold Spring remain operational, with Xerox "prescreening every potential citation," including a review of the cameras' photos and video to make sure the measured speeds are accurate. "This additional measure should eliminate erroneous tickets issued at these locations," she said.
It's not clear how the enhanced screening differs from what the city and its contractor already do as part of the usual process of issuing speed camera tickets. After a motorist is photographed, standard procedures call for company employees to check all potential citations before sending those deemed valid to the Police Department. Police officers must then validate any citation before it can be mailed to a vehicle owner.
Barnes did not respond to a follow-up question seeking more detail on the prescreening.
Earlier this month, Xerox spokesman Chris Gilligan said the company had already "added in an extra quality-control step" for Cold Spring citations to help catch anomalies involving trucks. He said the problem appeared to be caused by "radar effects, most likely reflection off the large metallic surfaces of these vehicles."
On Friday, a task force appointed by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to review the city's red light and speed camera programs will have its third meeting. The mayor formed the group in September to "assure that these programs continue to effectively promote traffic and pedestrian safety, especially near school zones."
The group has eight members, half of them city employees, and it meets in a Department of Transportation conference room.
The task force was originally chaired by Jamie Kendrick, who before leaving his position as a deputy transportation director hailed the speed camera program as "pretty darn" effective and well-operated. Zektick now leads the group.
Asked last week about the task force, Rawlings-Blake said "it's not a grand jury."
"This is transportation safety," the mayor said. "We're talking about professionals. I trust them and depend on them to bring their professional talents to the table to advise."
The Sun's investigation of the city's speed camera also found that city judges routinely toss out tickets and that the city has long ignored the state's narrow definition of a "school zone." The department turned off five cameras in August after being challenged about its compliance with state law.
In addition, The Sun found that citations do not inform motorists that there may be video evidence that could exonerate them in court.