Where’s the Reform in Speed Camera Reform Bill?
If you’re looking for the “reform” in the Speed Monitoring Systems Reform Act of 2014, keep looking. Last week the House of Delegates passed the measure, by a vote of 115-20, which purports to “reform” speed camera systems throughout the Maryland jurisdictions that operate them. However, the bill does everything but reform those speed cameras systems.
Speed cameras systems in jurisdictions throughout the state have come under much scrutiny, especially in Baltimore City after high profile failures lead the city to fire two contractors and suspend its speed camera program.
“The legislature can call this bill whatever they wish, but it is not reform’. It is just an exercise in polishing poop,” said Ron Ely of the Maryland Drivers Alliance. “This bill contains only the things local governments agreed would not significantly change what they are doing now.”
At the House Environmental Matters Committee hearing on the bill, lead sponsor and committee Vice Chairman, Del. James Malone (D- Baltimore and Howard County) said the legislation was designed to put confidence back into speed cameras.
The bill ostensibly ends so called “bounty system” contracts, tightens the definition of a school zone, where many speed cameras are deployed, sets up an ombudsman to hear complaints, and gives local jurisdictions the ability to cancel contracts if their vendor surpasses a certain error threshold.
However, according to analysis by the Maryland Drivers Alliance the bill grandfathers in bounty system contracts for three years, even those executed up until May 31, 2014. Meaning that any jurisdiction lock into a bounty system contract from now until the end of May and have it continue for three years, even if this the Senate approves, and Governor Martin O’Malley signs the bill.
Last year, after a Baltimore Sun investigation revealed serious problems with Baltimore’s speed camera program, Governor O’Malley said, “The law says you’re not supposed to charge by volume. I don’t think we should charge by volume. If any county is, they need to change their program.”
Yet HB 929 still allows payments on batches of tickets and quotas according to Ely.
The bill does not address the real problem with speed cameras, which are the errors. Ely said the Maryland Drivers Alliance offered several proposals to identify and errors, but they were rejected. Ely said documents his organization has obtained from speed camera vendors “prove that you can use images to verify speed, if accurate timestamps are given.” “Secondary evidence of speed is essential if you want to address errors” Ely told the House Environmental Matters Committee during the hearing on HB 929.
He also stated that the Maryland State Highway Administration and Montgomery County have the technical capability to provide accurate time stamps even though they claimed the contrary to lawmakers.
The bill codifies into law acceptance of a 5 percent error rate for speed camera vendors. If we were to apply that error threshold to the 700,000 speed camera violations issued by Baltimore City in 2012 that means this “reform” bill would allow the issuance of 35,000 erroneous tickets. An audit of Baltimore’s first speed camera vendor, the politically connected Xerox State and Local Solutions, revealed an error rate of 10.6 percent.
HB 929 does not apply to the state’s own speed camera system, which is still operated by Xerox.
Nor was Ely impressed with the idea of the “ombudsman”. “Any agency which wants this could do that now, without these changes. It is modeled after a so-called ombudsman in Montgomery County,” he said. In Montgomery County the ombudsman is the speed camera program administrator. “He is loyal to the program not the people,” Ely said.
The Maryland Drivers Alliance offered an amendment proposing that jurisdictions conduct a comprehensive annual audit of their speed camera systems. The bill, as passed by the House, containes no mention of audits.
Watching the archived video of the committee hearing on HB 929, it appears that it was merely a perfunctory event. Ely was the only person to offer opposing testimony on the bill, whereas several “stakeholders” including AAA lobbyists, and local law enforcement officials all offered “me too” testimony in favor of the bill.
HB 929 must still pass the Senate, and Governor O’Malley must sign it. Chances are that it will clear both hurdles. However, the fundamental flaws with speed cameras remain and no amount of turd polish will fix them.