Tuesday, August 23, 2011

WARNING: Beltway Speed Cameras Begin Ticketing TODAY // Why That Stinks

UPDATE: We just noticed that it appears College Park is (not so ironically) using its speed camera revenues to install surveillance cameras in the city! At least we know our officials are clever -- they can leverage one "big brother" project for another. Will College Park end up like London?

Editor's Note: Former Del. Saqib Ali writes in the comments, "I introduced a bill entitled the 'Speed Camera Fairness Act' a few years ago that would remove the conflict of interest that I considered inherent in Montgomery County Police Department's contract. However, the bill garnered very little traction." I notice that the bill's Senate Sponsor, Mike Lenett, is also no longer in office. Hopefully, that doesn't end the chances for accountability with our speed camera practices.

WARNING TO AREA DRIVERS: Starting today, Maryland will begin photo enforcement on the Beltway. Fox 5 reported yesterday (the last day warning tickets were being issued):
We found one of the mobile, car-mounted cameras on the outer loop near New Hampshire Avenue flashing away on this last day drivers are getting just warnings - not the 40 dollar fine.
The new beltway speed cameras are only in construction zones. One is where a bridge deck rebuilding project has started over the Northwest Branch of the Anacostia River. The second beltway construction zone is a five mile repaving project on the inner loop through Prince George's county.
This is an amazing development to me, since in recent weeks, the speed camera operators have again been caught cheating area drivers. Folks, no matter what you believe about traffic safety, pedestrian accidents, and little Timmy who needs to cross the street on your block -- it can't change the fact that operation of these revenue-generating cameras is almost always outsourced to a for-profit corporation (usually a major defense company or weapons manufacturer).

As the auto partisans at the National Motorists Association flagged back in 2001:
"I find it very revealing that Lockheed Martin, one of the biggest manufacturers of red light cameras in the U.S., has included clauses in their contracts that prohibit city engineers from applying engineering practices that improve compliance and reduce accidents, apparently to maintain the flow of ticket camera revenue. Lockheed Martin specifically prohibits cities, such as San Diego, California, from changing the timing of yellow lights in intersections that host their cameras, even though increasing the yellow light time has proven to dramatically decrease red light violations."
This is a fairly significant point that only the most wonky (or pissed off) drivers will understand. Way back in 2003, one clever Bethesda driver caught them cheating in exactly this manner. He clocked the yellow light timing on his street and found that the intersection he was photographed at had a 3-second yellow light:
Three seconds, when every other yellow light on the stretch of road was four seconds long....

Why this light in Bethesda was three seconds might have a million dollar answer. Literally. This one traffic camera earned the county $1 million in fines over 14 months.
This prompted AAA (the other auto partisans) to note the regional occurrence of these issues:
Washington D.C. collected big on an odd double yellow light that turns red when it's not even at an intersection. In Baltimore, Anderson says, you can get a red light ticket by missing the light by one tenth of a second....

These systems can work, but why can't they work without tricking them? Why can't they work without gimmicks?
I think I already answered this question earlier in the post: "operation of these revenue-generating cameras is almost always outsourced to a for-profit corporation (usually a major defense company or weapons manufacturer)."

Do not believe for a second that these problems have been solved. Just this week, residents caught Prince George's speed camera operator Opto-Traffic, cheating the system:
LaDieu was ticketed doing 50 mph on March 8 at 4:01pm. He's got a device called a "car chip" that he says proves otherwise. The car chip records everything that his trucks data computer does. The printout shows, his maximum speed at that time was 32 miles an hour....
AAA Mid-Atlantic says it has received several complaints about Opto-Traffic's inaccurate ticketing...."It appears to be a program that is all about money. A gotcha for greenbacks... Ka-ching! Ka-ching! Ka-ching!"
Earlier this year another Maryland resident proved the inaccuracy of photo enforcement in the area:
Will Foreman, the owner of Eastover Auto Supply in Oxon Hill, Maryland, has managed to prove reasonable doubt five times before three separate judges, by bringing photos snapped on the highway of his company’s vehicles into court and proving that there is no way they were travelling over the speed limit.

But how did he do it?

Foreman took a close look at the photos snapped on Maryland’s Indian Head Highway by Optotraffic. The company’s devices first use sensors to detect vehicles traveling at least 12 miles over the imposed speed limit, and then snap two time-stamped image of the vehicle 50 feet down the road, at 0.363 second intervals.

The allegedly speeding motorist is then sent the pictures and a $40 ticket.

After superimposing the two photographs into one image - using the vehicle’s length as a frame of reference - Foreman was able to calculate the vehicle’s speed, given the distance and the elapsed time of the shots, and was able to prove that the vehicles were not in fact speeding.
What in the world is going on? In my tainted opinion, America's love affair with speed cameras (and lazy automated law enforcement) is getting out of hand. Folks are beginning to rubber stamp new projects without looking at the data or truly giving an airing to the counterarguments. Most people are content to write off speed camera opposition as libertarian craziness. Well, only some folks it seems. As Stop Big Brother Maryland (not my name!), an anti-speed camera site, recently reported:
Baltimore City Councilwoman Belinda Conaway (D, District 7) has proposed legislation to end the use of speed cameras in Baltimore City. Conaway argued that if the devices had been working correctly to reduce speeding then revenues from should have been declining, but this has not occurred.  "We can see that this is a safety measure that is not working."

Conaway proposed that the city department of transportation to look at "hotspot areas" and create "traffic calming measures" in those areas.  Other types of engineering traffic calming measures have been demonstrated to be at least as effective as speed cameras in controlling traffic speeds. 
Conaway suggested that any city residents who wish to see speed cameras repealed need to let their council members know.
And here Conaway really gets at the heart of the matter. No matter what they say, state and local officials are addicted to speed camera revenue. It is fast, easy, and outsourced (so we don't even have to deal with the labor, technology and installation). Would the police departments in the area even know how to audit the accuracy of the machines if they wanted to?

But let's get real. Putting political spin aside, can anyone really look me in the eye and say that speed camera expansion is not driven by budgetary needs? Is it any wonder that in a recession, local governments -- increasingly cut off from state and federal aid, and without other ways of raising revenue -- are turning to increased enforcement (of all types) to raise funds?

Outsourcing law enforcement powers and ticketing authority to for-profit corporations is really ingenious. We should also outsource environmental enforcement and bank regulation to corporations. Oh wait............. *sigh*.

So residents of the area, I implore you to stop trading away good policy over vague and barely substantiated safety fears.

P.S. For the super-wonky, see this very quick Wikipedia note questioning whether you can attribute reduction of accidents at speed camera intersections to the cameras themselves:
Speed cameras are often installed after a road incurs an exceptionally high number of accidents, and this value usually falls (regression to mean) immediately afterwards. Many speed camera proponents attribute this fall in accidents to the speed camera, without observing the overall trend.
See, Republicans and tea partiers aren't the only ones that care about liberty (not to be confused with "Liberty").

1 comment:

  1. I introduced a bill entitled the "Speed Camera Fairness Act" a few years ago that would remove the conflict of interest that I considered inherent in Montgomery County Police Department's contract: http://www.saqibali.org/blog/2008/09/speed-camera-contract-structure-in.html

    However, the bill garnered very little traction.