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EDITORIAL: Charm City camera crackup

Bogus citations raise doubts about automated ticketing

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Officials in the District, Maryland and elsewhere insist there's a foolproof way to ensure a photo radar ticket never appears in your mailbox: Don't speed. That bromide has helped provide cover for greedy municipal bureaucrats as they grab millions in revenue in the name of safety. New evidence reveals the speed camera frequently fibs.

Ron Ely, who runs the StopBigBrotherMD.org website, has pummeled Maryland officials with public records requests regarding their camera programs. He struck gold when he came upon a cache of documents from the city of Baltimore describing the dodgy results the cameras often produce. "This was a predictable result," Mr. Ely told The Washington Times. "Some local governments would like camera programs to be black boxes that print money, outsourcing responsibility for fairness to a contractor paid an incentive to issue more tickets."

Bad incentives encourage mistakes, as one driver in Pennsylvania learned after receiving a bogus citation. "I own a burgundy-colored Chevy Lumina ... the car the citation is for is on a silver Sebring, a Chrysler product," she wrote in a July 25, 2011, email to the city. "I have no idea who owns this car, but I sure haven't ever driven in your state!" It took a matter of seconds for the camera to falsely accuse this woman of a crime. It took 18 days and the exchange of nearly a dozen emails between the city of Baltimore and the private contractor, Affiliated Computer Services (ACS), to clear her good name.

Similarly, a Potomac, Md., resident received a red light camera ticket that contained a photograph of someone else's car. The motorist had to request an official copy of his vehicle registration and provide photographs of his vehicle to rectify the situation. "It should not take four calls over two months (not to mention the hours of being put on hold) to resolve this obvious error," he complained in a Sept. 30, 2010, email to the city. Nothing was done to resolve the underlying problem. By January, he had received three more tickets repeating the same mistake.

There's a simple reason for the slapdash quality control. ACS and other camera contractors receive a bounty payment for each citation issued, creating a direct financial incentive for mailing out marginal tickets. There's no corresponding incentive for accuracy. So it's not a surprise to learn at least 1,200 motorists improperly received tickets because the trigger speed on the camera was set 5 mph too low. Another 3,145 citations went out with the wrong location listed.

There's no way to know how many more of the millions of tickets issued in Maryland have gotten it wrong. For most people, it's not worthwhile to take off from work to fight a $40 or $75 citation. Many wrongly accused just pay up to make the whole thing go away.

America's legal tradition was built on the principle that the accused should be considered innocent until proven guilty. Automated enforcement turns that principle on its head, forcing the public to take it on faith that the camera never lies. As the evidence shows, this faith is misplaced. The cameras should come down.

THE WASHINGTON TIMES

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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