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Problems found in Maryland work zone speed cameras

Audit uncovers problems with contractor, equipment

Maryland's highway construction zone speed camera program is run by a contractor that was inadequately vetted and uses equipment that was not calibrated before it went into operation, possibly resulting in more than $850,000 in potential revenue lost for the state, according to an audit released Tuesday.

The report from the Office of Legislative Audits looks at the entire operations of the Maryland State Highway Administration, but zeros in on several problems identified with the highway administration's speed camera program.

Formally called Maryland SafeZones, the program places speed cameras alongside work zones and automatically assesses speeders $40 tickets. The program has been in place since 2009, soon after the state authorized speed cameras. After a few months of operating a pilot program, the state awarded the contract to operate the cameras to ACS State and Local Solutions in June 2010. Similar speed camera programs operate in states across the country and are almost always controversial.

According to a study last year from U.S. PIRG, a federation of independent, state-based organizations that advocate for the public interest, some camera traffic enforcement contracts between states and municipalities are rife with problems — like early termination penalties and limited benefits to the local governments. Some analysts have found that more cameras may cause more traffic crashes by motorists trying not to be caught.

Other states have quit camera-based speed enforcement altogether.

Arizona stopped using the cameras on highways after its contract for them expired in July 2010. Several cities in California — including Los Angeles, Berkeley and San Jose — have also canceled contracts for camera traffic enforcement.

Acting Legislative Auditor Thomas Barnickel III said the auditors in Maryland looked more at the administration of the camera contract than the camera program's operations and any citations.

"I think they could have used a better process," Mr. Barnickel said.

Auditors found there were too few — or too fluid — benchmarks to evaluate the program. When the state first did a pilot program to test the effectiveness of the cameras, auditors found there were no minimum requirements for equipment accuracy or number of citations that should be issued. Examining 133,620 records from the cameras during the first few months of the pilot program, auditors saw that only 44 percent of vehicles found to be speeding were actually issued citations. The other 56 percent were not cited because the cameras did not capture clear and reliable photographs of license plates. According to the report, if those citations had been issued, the state would have reaped at least $850,000 more.

Requirements for the contractor were also changed while the contract with ACS was being considered, the audit states. The request for proposals required that the successful contractor utilize technology conforming to the guidelines of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, record legible images of speeders' license plates 95 percent of the time, and pass an independent accuracy test. However, auditors wrote that the image requirement was decreased to 90 percent while ACS was negotiating for the contract. Additionally, the laser technology used by ACS did not meet the police association's guidelines, and the independent accuracy test was performed using less than half of the data requested by the state.

The cameras also were not calibrated to ensure they were recording correct speeds until they had been in use for nine months. While 93 percent of the citations with a clear picture not blocked by other traffic or weather resulted in citations, and the contract requires that the cameras be calibrated once a year, auditors wrote that waiting nine months for the first calibration was unfair.

"In our opinion, to help ensure the cameras were functioning properly when implemented, the independent certification should have been conducted at the beginning of the contract," the audit states.

While Acting SHA Secretary Darrell Mobley wrote in his response to the audit that he agrees with the auditors' findings, he argued that the technology for speed cameras is constantly changing, resulting in changes in requirements and types of equipment.

Department spokeswoman Valerie Edgar said that the audit is looking back at issues from several years ago, many of which have been rectified by now. The camera program has worked well in terms of getting people to drive slower in construction zones. According to an August department release, only about 2 percent of drivers are speeding enough to receive tickets. Many of the problems outlined in the audit, she said, deal with the pilot program that was the precursor to the cameras in use today.

"Part of the pilot is figuring out what works and what doesn't," she said.

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About the Author

Megan Poinski

Megan Poinski is the former deputy metro editor at The Washington Times. She has worked as a reporter, editor and web designer for more than a decade, covering mostly local, state and federal government in Ohio, Maryland and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Throughout her career, she has received reporting awards from the Scripps Howard Foundation, Capitolbeat, and Associated Press Managing ...

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