EDITORIAL: A flash of truth on speed-camera cash

Municipal revenue schemes begin to unravel

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The Baltimore Sun reports some interesting statistics about the revenue cameras that have been harassing drivers passing through Charm City for years. One of every 10 speeding tickets records a speed reading that’s completely made up.

Grandmas in 20-year-old bangers are accused of daredevil speed. Parked cars are cited for speeding. A limousine innocent of everything but luxury is cited for running a nonexistent red light. About 70,000 motorists have been shaken down so far. Charming.

Instead of returning the stolen money with a humble apology, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake goes after the mechanical messenger. She says URS Corp., which conducted the secret audit commissioned by the city, was not “sufficiently qualified” to test the robotic cameras.

URS Corp. is a publicly traded engineering firm worth nearly $4 billion, so it’s not likely to fly by night (or day, either). It’s certainly qualified to do the basic arithmetic required to verify the speed readings on a photograph, with simple time and distance calculations. Mayor Rawlings-Blake sounds like she’s furious that the company didn’t find and present the data in the way such companies are expected to do. It’s all about revenue.

When representatives from the city of Newport News, Va., testified to a Virginia House Transportation subcommittee on Wednesday, they had such figures in hand to present against legislation that would ban the revenue cameras.

The city claims accident reductions of between 19 percent and 98 percent at the three intersections where Redflex Traffic Systems, a for-profit corporation, issues citations.

This “analysis” was disputed by Joe Bahen, a licensed civil engineer who was there to testify for imposing the ban on behalf of the National Motorists Association. He obtained the raw crash data from the city, which he says reveals that accidents with injuries actually increased from 17 percent to 50 percent where cameras were used. Mr. Bahen asked the city to retract its questionable claims to the General Assembly.

But admitting the revenue cameras cause accidents and injuries is not likely. The revenue is important. Besides, it’s old news.

The Virginia Department of Transportation reported in 2007 that these cameras create a safety hazard by encouraging panic braking by motorists to avoid tickets. “The cameras were associated with an increase in total crashes,” the report concluded. The damage varied from intersection to intersection, but the average increase was 29 percent.

The temptation to pad their own pockets with the revenue from the cameras is more than some mayors and aldermen can resist. The Chicago Tribune reports that Aaron M. Rosenberg, former executive vice president at Redflex, admits that Redflex incurred “lavish entertainment expenses with elected officials, consultants and city officials in … efforts to secure new contracts and maintain company revenue.”

The city of Chicago, which ought to know a bribe when it sees one, is investigating for evidence of bribery.

Mr. Rosenberg says such favors have been doled out in a dozen states, including Virginia. Predictably, every town in Virginia that has a contract with Redflex says it has checked, and there’s nothing to report. This recalls the movie “Casablanca,” and Capt. Renault’s “shock, shock” to learn that gambling was going on in the casino.

But enough might be enough, in Virginia. The General Assembly will consider the camera ban soon; the legislation cleared the subcommittee this week. Maryland isn’t likely to follow, but it should confirm the accuracy of the revenue cameras in every jurisdiction statewide.

The people the elected officials serve deserve that much. If they won’t get the audit, it’s only fair to ask: What are they hiding?

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