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So glad we are all better drivers these days. No cell phone calls, no texting, no smoking with the snowflakes present, mandatory seat belts, helmet laws, the crackdown on drunk drivers, sobriety checkpoints, red light cameras, work zone cameras, speed cameras – why, getting behind the wheel these days is the motoring equivalent of being a babe in its mama’s arms.
Well, one may think that is so – especially the way the elected ninnies tout all the “safety” regulations they’ve enacted, particularly when it comes to traffic surveillance.
But the truth? Well, the reality belies what our lawmakers are shoveling, as 2012 saw the highway death total climb faster than at any time since 1975.
Yet, fudged safety stats notwithstanding, the real truth about traffic cameras lies not in the amount of lives saved and accidents avoided, but in the enormous amount of revenue it supplies both the camera manufacturer and the jurisdictions that embrace these forms of policing for profit.
And in most instances the profits roll in whether the cameras are accurate or not… and these contraptions are proving to be anything but precise.
The evidence of that inaccuracy is overwhelming. In mid-April, Baltimore City became the latest jurisdiction to join the ever-growing list of cities/municipalities that are revamping, reevaluating or in some cases eliminating their revenue-generating speed camera programs.
The Department of Transportation issued a news release saying Baltimore City has temporarily suspended use of its red light and speed cameras because “the devices haven’t been accurate.”
Of course, that explanation reeks of dishonesty; if accuracy was the true reason for shelving the automated cash-snatchers they would have been abandoned six months after implementation.
As of April 1, more than 580 communities had welcomed some form – red light, speed, work zone – of traffic enforcement cameras. And while 29 states currently have no camera enforcement laws on the books, only 12 states have banned the use of speed cameras.
Seven states currently prohibit red light cameras.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 66 bills related to photo enforcement have been presented nationwide so far in 2013.
But at the same time, the critical chorus against these boxed money-grabs is growing exponentially.
In New York, the same state senate that nearly always accepts Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Liberal credit card put the kibosh on a plan for cameras in New York City, prompting Emperor Michael Bloomberg to throw a hissy and announce that the next time a speeder kills a kid it will be the legislature’s fault.
Shocking, I know: Bloomberg desperate to support for-profit businesses other than his own.
In Ohio, Judge Robert Ruehlman ordered the Elmwood Place township to halt usage of the cameras saying they are “a scam” and described the issuing of thousands of $105 citations as a “high-tech game of 3-Card Monty.”
Similar rulings have ignited debate from sea to strobe-flashing sea, and Baltimore’s actions are now at the forefront of the discussions.
Not only did the city suspend use of the cameras, officials also agreed to nullify more than 6,000 tickets that had been mailed to the alleged violators.
Total cost? Over 300 grand. In the last fiscal year the city’s speed cameras – just the speed cameras – generated $19 million.
Gesture, meet token.
Obviously, the business partnerships between camera companies and cities willing to deliberately tweak their speed limits, camera locations and caution lights for maximum ticket profits, rather than for safety, are thriving in spite of symbolic damage control.
“The cameras have never really fully been tested,” Gene Simmers, a retired Maryland State Highway Administration employee, told CBS Philadelphia. Simmers was referencing a state report that found the cameras were not tested as many times as they should have been and that the type of speed detection equipment used by the cameras in highway work zones was not approved by the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
Pennsylvania media is interested in the thoughts of a former SHA employee because the state legislature in Harrisburg had been considering expanding the automated enforcement programs.
Now, thanks to some of the laughable examples of Baltimore City’s camera follies, even AAA Mid-Atlantic has joined the anti-camera chorus.
“It wasn’t even moving and it got a ticket,” AAA spokesperson Jenny Robinson told CBS News, referencing a Baltimore delivery truck that was issued a citation for traveling 57 miles-per-hour in a 25-mph zone even though video from the camera showed the truck was nearly at a standstill.
“That’s one example of the concerns that we have with automatic enforcement,” Robinson continued. “If it’s not accurate then there’s no point in using it.”
But there is a point in using them, and that purpose is to continue reaping the benefits of the $6 billion per year that Americans pay for speeding violations.
According to an extensive investigation by The Baltimore Sun we’ve learned – through the former camera company’s own admission – that the error rate for these devices exceeds five percent. And more than 1.6 million tickets have been issued since 2009.
And the city nullified 6,000.
“The troubles with Baltimore’s speed camera system have raised the eyebrows of motorists, legislators and traffic safety advocates,” wrote AAA spokesperson Ragina Averella, “and have truly called the integrity of the city’s entire program into question.”
But it’s not just Baltimore. Prince George’s County is taking action to stop Fairmount Heights from issuing any camera citations because the town appears to be in violation of a state law that allows photo enforcement only in school zones and requires that cameras are properly announced via signage.
In Laurel, the city is under fire for circumventing state requirements for independent calibration of the cameras.
Dozens of other national jurisdictions are waking up to elected officials trying to follow the lead of former D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty who, in 2010, accelerated the revenue-vs-safety debate when he raised traffic fines – in one instance from $50 – $125 – to help balance his city’s budget.
And why not? In a report released by AAA one camera on one stretch of the District’s New York Avenue raised $11 million in two years.
That kind of cash comes in mighty handy when you need to grease the lobbyists that help government skim the taxpayer.
If the actions of Fenty and other such kindred governmentals don’t offer proof enough of automated enforcement offering no more than a direct line to your wallet, witness the actions of the Maryland Legislature during the just-concluded General Assembly sessions.
Delegate John Cluster (R – Baltimore County) introduced a bill that would have imposed a daily calibration check on the cameras. Delegate Jon Cardin’s (D – Baltimore County) legislation would have forced the courts to impose a $1,000 fine on the camera company if it were found that a citation was issued erroneously. Delegate Frank Conaway (D – Baltimore City) wanted those who maintain the speed enforcement systems to pay a $250 penalty to the motorist who received said erroneous ticket.
Various speed camera bills were introduced by Sen. James Brochin, Sen. E.J. Pipkin, Del. Carolyn Howard and Del. Mike Smigiel and they not only addressed accuracy and effectiveness, but some also called for outright elimination of the program.
When the confetti dropped (made from shredded taxpayer dollars) in early April to signal the end of the session not a single traffic camera bill had passed, including a final version that would have placed stricter limits on where local governments could put speed cameras, required appointments of ombudsmen to hear complaints, and strengthened language prohibiting governments from entering into new contracts under which they paid private companies for each ticket issued.
Noting the bill’s failure, Sen. Brochin told the Baltimore Sun that the final product would have helped protect Maryland drivers from abuses of the camera system.
Of course, Marylanders are use to having elected officials that continually fail to do the right thing – even if it is our own fault for sending the same repeat offenders back to Annapolis.
No amount of information – no amount of facts counteracting the myths of these devices – will prevent lawmakers from trumping-up the safety angle while gorging at the predatory revenue trough.
“We’ve been able to achieve a pretty significant reduction in traffic fatalities,” Gov. Martin O’Malley weighed in on the safety aspects of traffic cameras in Maryland. “I think part of that has to do with better technology and all of us taking it a little slower. We are saving a lot of lives and reducing traffic fatalities.”
Well, save for that pesky spike in 2012 – and even though he ignored the numbers that showed fatal crashes on state highways dropped in 2006, 2007 and 2008.
State wide use of speed cameras wasn’t authorized until 2009.
In Baltimore the focus remains on getting the cash IV back into the arm of the motoring public. In January the city switched from its current camera provider – Xerox State & Local Solutions – to Brekford, a Maryland-based “upstart” in the industry that has been contracted to install/replace 72 speed cameras throughout the city. In addition to costing $2.2 million, the contract will allow a vendor to share in the proceeds of the fines collected – for every $75 traffic ticket generated by the cameras and collected by the city, Brekford is rebated $21. For every $40 ticket, Brekford gets $11.20.
Also of interest is an April 19 report by Baltimore Brew that notes that members of Brekford’s board include Douglas DeLeaver, a former chief of the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) Police; Jessie Lee Jr., executive director of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (which has longstanding ties to the Baltimore City Police Department).
The Brew also reported that the head of Brekford’s speed camera division, Maurice Nelson, was hired from Montgomery County’s automated traffic enforcement program.
In addition, the $2.2 million was handed over to Brekford even though that company’s “clerical mistakes” (and software compatibility issues) are what resulted in an undisclosed number of erroneous tickets given out to motorists.
And, Brekford scored all the repeat business without having to jump through the hoops of competitive bidding.
“We decided it was not practical to seek competitive bids on these additional cameras,” Timothy M. Krus, the city’s chief purchasing agent said in response to City Comptroller Joan Pratt questioning the process.
When it comes to the cameras themselves as well as the government officials who vote to authorize them, it becomes more apparent that Judge Reuhlman’s said it best: automated traffic enforcement is “a scam the motorist cannot win.”
Tags: Baltimore City, Maryland Legislature, Maryland Speed Cameras, speed cameras
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