Md. lawmakers: End bounty system for speed cameras

Ari Ashe,

ANNAPOLIS, Md. – As the focus in Annapolis remains on gun control and transportation funding, some lawmakers are debating a bill that would try to fix problems with speed cameras.

Maryland State Sen. Jim Brochin, D-Baltimore, introduced a bill that would place stricter controls on local speed camera programs.

One requirement would essentially end per ticket fees, also referred to as contingency fees, and replace them with a flat fee.

Officials thought they took care of the issue in 2009, but local jurisdictions found a loophole in the law to pay the company supplying the cameras a portion of each ticket.

“Gov. O’Malley made it very, very clear that this wasn’t supposed to be a bounty system,” Brochin says. “The contractors were supposed to be paid on an annual or semi-annual basis. They are not supposed to be paid per ticket.”

Critics point out that such a system gives contractors incentive to issue more tickets, perhaps some bogus, in order to earn more money.

“This led to the problem in Baltimore,” says Ron Ely of the Maryland Drivers Alliance. “It would’ve lost money if a camera came offline.”

“To quote [Montgomery County Executive] Ike Leggett before the news of their per-ticket system broke, ‘Under the contract, we pay a flat fee’,” says Ely.

Leggett made that comment during a virtual town hall in March 2008.

But in Montgomery County, 41 percent of each $40 speed camera ticket goes to the supplier, Affiliated Computer Services.

“When the county has to pay a leased fee every month and over time the citations slow down, Montgomery County faces the risk of having equipment being managed based on revenue, not based on safety,” says Capt. Thomas Didone, who runs the Montgomery County camera program.

Didone says he manages the program based on safety, not revenue.

“If you required us to have a flat fee, I would then have to incorporate the productivity of the 56 fixed poles,” he says. “Right now, because it’s a per paid citation, I never have to remove them, even if it only produces five tickets per month.”

In addition, Montgomery County’s contract with ACS includes a provision that would require the county to pay $150,000 per month if Maryland law prohibits per ticket fees.

Prince George’s County also opposes the bill.

“There’s no way for me to forecast the number of violations that will come in month to month,” says Maj. Robert Liberati, who runs the Prince George’s County camera program. “If I had to pay a fixed fee in a contract, I would have to drop the number of cameras.”

“Right now I have 24 cameras that issue less than 10 tickets per day and they are not moneymakers.”

There are 72 speed cameras in Prince George’s County, with 37 percent of each ticket going to the vendor, OptoTraffic.

Brochin’s bill would also require jurisdictions to paint stripes on the road every five or 10 feet, similar to the speed cameras in the District of Columbia.

It would also require tickets to have two timestamps to the hundredth of a second, so that drivers can independently calculate their speed.

“The only absolutely reliable way to verify the speed of a vehicle is to paint fiducial markers on the road, and have two accurately timestamped images that shows exactly how far it’s traveled in an interval of time,” says Christopher Davis, professor of engineering at the University of Maryland.

“We all know from the Olympics that we can measure to a thousandth of a second, so there’s no reason why we couldn’t timestamped images with millisecond precision.”

Fernando Berra, a photonics engineer at Northrop Grumman, also says that stripes and precise timestamps on the tickets are the best way to accurately measure speed.

But critics believe it may not be practical to put in these changes.

“If you paint the lines on the roadway, when you have inclement weather, like snow on the ground, you can’t conduct any speed enforcement,” says Didone.

“I could not put 800 lines on the roadway,” says Liberati. “Our roads would look like a zebra.”

Both officers also pointed out that two precise timestamps to a millisecond would not be possible, and that when you the information to an average driver, they’ll burden judges with inaccurate calculations.

Brochin’s bill would also require speed cameras to be placed within 500 feet of a school zone. Under the current law, speed cameras can be placed with a half-mile radius of the school.

Follow @AriAsheWTOP and @WTOP on Twitter.

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