Secret Audit Of Baltimore's Speed Cams Says Up To 70,000 Tickets Were Issued In Error In 2012 Alone

from the and-no-incentive-to-improve dept

God bless the drivers of Maryland, whose government officials have been experimenting on them for years by placing their driving records and insurance rates in the hands of unreliable private contractors for years. We’ve already covered one major traffic camera firm (ATS – American Traffic Solutions) in the Maryland-DC area whose response to questionable photos captured by its cameras was to crop out anything that might make the ticket challengeable, like calibration lines or other vehicles.

Now, it appears another major contractor, Xerox State and Local Solutions, has been caught operating faulty cameras — and issuing tens of thousands of questionable citations. (via Reason)

Consultant URS Corp. evaluated the camera system as run by Xerox State and Local Solutions in 2012 and found an error rate of more than 10 percent — 40 times higher than city officials have claimed. The city got those findings last April but never disclosed the high error rate, refusing calls by members of the City Council to release the audit.

The city issued roughly 700,000 speed camera tickets at $40 each in fiscal year 2012. If 10 percent were wrong, 70,000 would have wrongly been charged $2.8 million.

Xerox’s contract ended in 2012, and the city tried out a couple of new contractors after the Baltimore Sun reported that the city’s cameras were producing faulty citations. Previous to the Sun’s investigative work, city officials claimed the cameras had a “one-quarter of one percent error rate.” Xerox performed its own audit and found 5 cameras with a 5.2% error rate, but said it took those offline upon discovery.

Neither claim matches up with the URS audit. Not only were 10% clearly erroneous, but another 26% were declared “questionable,” meaning the system Xerox ran for three years was only unquestionably “right” less than two-thirds of the time.

To top this all off, members of the city government still hadn’t seen this audit until the Baltimore Sun managed to secure a copy of it.

City Council members reacted with dismay and anger when told Wednesday of the audit’s results, asking why the Rawlings-Blake administration didn’t reveal the high error rate months ago and take steps to fully refund fines paid by motorists.

The administration has one good reason not to release the report: it doesn’t want to get sued.

Despite calls from the City Council to release the audit, the administration does not plan to do so, Harris said. City Solicitor George Nilson, the administration’s chief lawyer, has said releasing the audit would violate a settlement agreement with Xerox and “create obvious risks and potential exposure for the city.”

In the settlement, the city agreed to pay Xerox $2.3 million for invoices from late 2012. The city also agreed to keep confidential any documents “referring or relating to, or reflecting, each party’s internal considerations, discussions, analyses, and/or evaluations of issues raised during the settlement discussions.”

The documents are no longer “confidential” at this point (and can be viewed here), and what’s been uncovered may cause future problems for Xerox, which was selected by a city panel last year to take over Chicago’s traffic cams. This happened in August of 2013, after Baltimore had already cut the contractor loose, but well before URS’ report surfaced. Knowing it had buried the company’s ineptitude by contractually obligating Baltimore’s administration to keep its mouth shut, Xerox officials had the confidence to make the following claim when reached for comment last August:

Xerox officials have said the problems in Baltimore accounted for less than 1 percent of all the tickets issued there.

So, that’s clearly untrue. Xerox kept burying itself, though, much like it thought it had buried that report.

“The majority of our camera programs are extremely well run and our customers are very satisfied,” Xerox Corp. spokesman Carl Langsenkamp said. “That’s really all I have to say about Baltimore.”

Well, its “customers” were as satisfied as anyone can be when the truth has been contractually bound and gagged. The Chicago mayor’s office defended doing business with Xerox by pointing out it had done its due diligence, noting no Baltimore official had declared Xerox barred or ineligible for city contracts. That’s what NDA’s do. They keep people from telling you bad things.

In even more “good” news for Chicago’s drivers, the story also contains this bit of info:

Xerox Corp., best known for its onetime domination of the photocopier market, is a relative newcomer to the automated camera industry. In 2009 it purchased Affiliated Computer Services Inc. — well-known in the industry — for $6.4 billion.

“Well-known” has lots of different meanings. ACS is “well-known” for its close relationship with New Orleans cops, who formed their own company in order to cash in on ACS’ traffic cam photo backlog, along the way violating NOPD ethics rules, laundering their funds through a police charity, and generally reinforcing the negative image of a corrupt New Orleans police force in many people’s minds. In fairness, ACS accidentally outed the officers’ unethical sideline by paying the controlling officer directly through his company, rather than obscuring the transaction through the charity.

ACS is also “well-known” for being careless with the personal info of millions of private citizens. ACS lost a data CD containing the personal info of 2.9 million Georgia residents back in 2007. Prior to that, it had a computer stolen (500k-1.4 million Colorado residents’ data contained therein), suffered a website glitch that exposed 21,000 students’ info, and had seven years of credit card data stolen from one of its computers at the Denver airport.

What Chicago may have watching over its drivers is a set of malfunctioning cameras overseen by a company that can’t seem to stop coughing up people’s personal data. Good times.

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Companies: acs, affiliated computer services, ats, urs corp., xerox

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Comments on “Secret Audit Of Baltimore's Speed Cams Says Up To 70,000 Tickets Were Issued In Error In 2012 Alone”

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pixelpusher220 (profile) says:

Lack of Oversight

Does not make a technology bad. Red light cameras save lives and costs. Now, simply dropping a new technology into a system and expecting users to use it ‘correctly’ is a fools paradise.

We already don’t train people to drive in the US. Now we expect them to shift behaviors overnight when the corrective force is applied weeks later if at all.

You’re going to get an increase in rear end collisions, that much is obvious. Over time as people become aware of these cameras behaviors will change and things will improve.

Perhaps rather than have contractors running these things, with all the apparent conflicts of interest, we should just let the local governments do it?

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Lack of Oversight

Red light cameras save lives and costs.

Not sure where you’re getting your information, but I’m pretty sure every independent study has shown the exact opposite, namely that red light cameras cause more accidents, and cost people more money.

Heck, you even admit it yourself later on in your comment with the ‘You’re going to get an increase in rear end collisions, that much is obvious.’

Perhaps rather than have contractors running these things, with all the apparent conflicts of interest, we should just let the local governments do it?

Uhh, how is that supposed to get rid of the conflict of interest? Cities already like the cameras because they get a cut of the revenue they bring in, giving them a bigger piece of the pie wouldn’t seem to solve that problem at all.

pixelpusher220 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Lack of Oversight

I do admit there will be an increase in accidents – due to lack of training and inconsistent implementation.

Look at the costs of a t-bone collision versus a relatively low mph rear end and the savings are obvious.

The ‘conflict of interest’ goes away when it’s run by the local gov’t or are you saying there’s a conflict of interest in cops doing their jobs too?

Initial rollouts of these systems had built in conflict of interests, i.e. the contractor getting paid ‘per ticket’. Most of that has been fixed as it’s been brought to light. It should be a fairly flat fee to change out the film based on hours worked rather than anything to do with tickets issued/rejected etc.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Lack of Oversight

The ‘conflict of interest’ goes away when it’s run by the local gov’t or are you saying there’s a conflict of interest in cops doing their jobs too?

There can be, actually, since ticket revenue tends to go directly to the police department. Not sure how you can fix that, but I think I’d rather the police get the money than the camera operators. And regardless of where the money goes, the evaluation of who gets a ticket should not be run by a private company. There’s no good reason to do that.

I do admit there will be an increase in accidents – due to lack of training

And due to the inevitable shortening of the yellow lights? And it’s not due to “lack of training”, it’s due to fear of a ticket causing people to jam on their brakes. There’s no way to “train” drivers to not do that, especially if you’re giving them tickets every time they don’t.

I’m against traffic cameras in general. I don’t like the idea that you can get a ticket in the mail weeks after an “offense” so you can’t even clearly remember the situation. I also don’t like that the camera cannot see the entire situation and cannot be reasoned with. Maybe you had to pull into the intersection because another car was about to hit you. An actual officer would actually SEE that and not issue the ticket (or if he didn’t, you might have a witness in the immediate area.) The camera doesn’t care (and good luck finding a witness a month later.) I also don’t like the idea of getting a ticket when somebody else was driving my car (although I guess the precedent for that was set with parking tickets.) I also don’t like the idea of police monitoring you at all times in public. It’s actually considered a safeguard against abuse that police have limited resources and cannot monitor everyone at all times.

Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Lack of Oversight

My uncle lives in the DC area. I saw him at Thanksgiving last year, and the subject of traffic cameras came up, and here’s what he had to say on the subject:

You guys here [Seattle area, which according to insurance company records has some of the most civilized drivers in the country] can’t even imagine how bad it is out there. Like, people going out in the middle of an intersection when the light’s green but the entire block in front of them is stacked up, and if you don’t do that–if you try to keep the intersection clear, like the law says–they’ll honk their horns at you and then drive around you and stop in the middle of the intersection. Stupid crap like that happens all the time.

And now they’re putting up these traffic cameras, and these idiot drivers are all getting mad at all the tickets they’re getting. I know one guy, drives like a total maniac, and he’s gotten something like 40 tickets from those cameras, and he just flips out with each one because he thinks he’s not doing anything wrong.

Having recently moved from Seattle, where the drivers are generally well-behaved even in heavy traffic, to Los Angeles, where traffic is just as bad as anything in DC as near as I can tell, I’m all for these cameras if they can hold the idiot drivers around me accountable and maybe even take a few repeat offenders off the road before they end up killing someone.

ltlw0lf (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Lack of Oversight

I do admit there will be an increase in accidents – due to lack of training and inconsistent implementation.

Actually, the increase of accidents are more likely caused by greed than training or implementation. If red-light cameras were designed to make T-Bone accidents a thing of the past, then the predominant use of Red-Light cameras on Left and Right turn lanes, where a T-Bone accident is nearly impossible (accidents may occur in both cases, but T-Bone accidents are far less likely,) kinda blows out that argument. Red-light cameras on left/right turn lanes are about getting as much money as possible, not preventing T-Bone accidents.

The ‘conflict of interest’ goes away when it’s run by the local gov’t or are you saying there’s a conflict of interest in cops doing their jobs too?

There was very much a conflict of interest when the companies ran the cameras themselves. If the goal was to reduce accidents, and get paid enough to continue to operate the cameras, then one of the two goals must take priority over the other since the two are mutually exclusive. You can’t continue to make money if you reduce accidents.

Which is also why they forced (through contract) cities to reduce the yellow light times, increase the fines, and prohibited other life-saving mechanisms from being used which competed with the red-light cameras.

It is also why they implemented snitch tickets and worded the letter sent to violators in such a way as to reduce fighting of the ticket (“we have you on camera, now pay up!” “If you go to court and fight this ticket, it will end up costing you far more than the low low cost of $1000 per violation we are charging you now…”) Most of the letters were sent from the company in question, and there were, for some time, questions as to whether a police officer actually reviewed the evidence (and in some cases, tickets were actually dismissed because the judge felt it was obvious that a police officer hadn’t reviewed the evidence first.)

There are so many better ways of stopping accidents, such as spot enforcement, redesigning intersections or fixing timing on the lights, all-red, and even simple stuff like putting a sign or a police car (with nobody in it,) at an intersection.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Lack of Oversight

Traffic violations as a whole is such a massive conflict of interest magnet since the primary objective ultimately boils down to some forms of increased driver safety. Since increased safety is such a vague thing to define, incentivising it optimally economically is near impossible.

The result of the privatisation is an economic “mining right” for the private companies to use against drivers. With an economic incentive not to take preventive measures and an economic incentive to give a ticket in any case of doubt or even straight up illegally if it is near impossible to proove, the whole concept is absurd and counter-intuitive in its basic implementation.

While the police has somewhat similar incentive problems they are at least tied to a need of upholding a certain public image. They have to take preventive actions and give tickets only to the more obvious cases to avoid getting a bad reputation.
A private company can carry a public reputation as “scum of the earth” with pride. That can hardly be said about the police.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Lack of Oversight

They might if done correctly however their idea of a red light camera is speeding up the yellow light timer to increase profit. They cannot be trusted to use them correctly therefor the technology is garbage by their own making.

What good is it when it’s eventually be put back on the shelf because they keep fucking up trying to cheat people?

I agree people have bad driving habits I know I drove a semi for WSE 4 years and USX 2 years. I’ve witnessed countless accidents due to people fucking off and some fatalities as well and even some lucky as hell people.

For the lucky I would say it was in Missouri 09 during the ice storm. I was snailing a long about 10mph when a SUV comes flaying past me doing 65. They get about 1/8th of a mile ahead of me and I see it spin around and 5 kids go flying out the back hatch. I did not even want to stop because I knew it was going to be fucked up. When I did stop I saw the kids start popping up out of the snow without a scratch. I almost got myself arrested when the cops arrived for telling the driver off. I didn’t want to sound like a dick but FFS I could not help it when I saw a parent almost get their children killed.

Worst Illinois 04 I saw a 7 year old kid ran over by a guy looking for a fucking CD. It was the most fucked up thing I’ve ever saw “not going into the details sorry” and the guy that did it ended up killing himself a few years later. It was sad all around multiple families destroyed by bad driving habits.

I am not exempt either 1990 a neighbor hit us from the side going about 80 sending me through windshield because I always took my seat belt off. I was 6 so I do not really remember it too good but luckily I have a really hard head so I was not hurt just scratched up. My Grandma always knew I was hardheaded lol. The end result was I took my seat belt off no more unless I wanted to get my ass beat half to death for even trying it.

Conclusion – The rules of the road are there for a reason people and not knowing them can end with death. Even if you think whats the point if nobody else is following them don’t let that discourage you. I’m a very defensive driver, I drive not only for myself but everyone around me. I don’t trust other around me to drive good so I reflect that in my habits to keep myself safe.

Damn I got way off target, my bad.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Lack of Oversight

Red light cameras save lives and costs.

Prove it.

Over time as people become aware of these cameras behaviors will change and things will improve.

What behaviors will change? Increases in rear-end collisions are because behaviors have changed — now people will be more inclined to screech to a stop even when it isn’t safe to do so. This is encouraged by the shortening of yellow light times to increase the revenue for camera companies and the city.

we should just let the local governments do it?

If we have to have these things, this is how it should have been done form the start (and is still how most people think it’s done right now). The privatization of these processes is one of the worst aspects of all this.

Michael (profile) says:

Re: Lack of Oversight

Instead of investing in red light cameras invest in /traffic planning/. Reward drivers with green lights for doing the speed limit (once they’ve synced to the waveform) and set actual /speed guides/ that post the speed to go at to hit the green light. Do that and you won’t even need to have ‘speed limits’ because drivers will want to just keep getting green light after green light.

Even better, once self driving cars (please arrive soon) hit the market they can time when to leave and how fast to go so that you’d /never/ hit a red light.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Lack of Oversight

self driving cars will never happen… it would be too much of a loss of revenue to the states, unless they tax the hell out of them to make up for all the moving violation fines they would be missing out on (as properly programmed and operating self driving vehicles would not commit moving violations without an outside cause beyond their programming).

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

One should look at how much money is going to the supporters of these things. It is obvious that many cities are hard pressed for new revenue but engaging in fraud is a new low.

An NDA barring anyone speaking about factual information about the failure of this system should be challenged. Protecting a flawed business model does seem to be Governments role lately, perhaps it is time for citizens to remember they have the right to be treated fairly and any elected offical working against that needs to be removed.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: I call BS!!!!


Oversight is good, when you fill the committee with people that dislike the program they are providing oversight for. Once the program and the committee are playing musical chairs with each other, as is typical with government and the like, oversight becomes just as worthless as the ‘FISA court’ where things are all secret with huge rubber stamps that authorize more abuses every time they simply fall over.

Anonymous Coward says:

This is a big deal here in Maryland

The previous Baltimore city administration was forced out of office over corruption issues. It’s possible that this will blow up enough to repeat that exercise.

The city is starved for revenue, and has a massive crime problem. (I think Baltimore is averaging more than one murder a day so far in 2014. Let’s hear it for the War on Drugs, yay!) It’s extremely clear that the entire traffic camera program is a complete fiasco, and that by the time they’re done spending money on studies, spending money defending from litigation, spending money refunding money that they should never have collected, etc. that the entire
program may well turn out in the red.

And none of this is making the streets any safer. The JFX (Jones Falls Expressway) which is a major commuting route into Baltimore from the north sees accidents all the time, and no wonder: drivers not only speed — a little bit of which is no big deal — but they weave in and out of heavy traffic. There are accidents daily that never needed to happen, but there is NO police presence there except for a speedtrap at one end. I-95 through the city is similar: during last week’s snowstorm, parts of it were closed because idiots thought they could drive 70 MPH in blinding, driving snow. And so on.

Baltimore city officials were sold a bill of goods by for-profit companies promising things they couldn’t deliver: safety and revenue. Now they’re trying to cover up their own lack of due diligence, and it’s getting ugly.

Ben S (profile) says:

Not suprised

As an employee of ACS, faulty computer software causing serious problems is sadly not a surprise. Although, I wasn’t in the company around the time of most of the other issues in the article (loss of personal information or credit cards), I have been witness to some very serious computer issues. At one point it was occuring nearly twice a week, and serious enough to bring the entire set of systems we work with to a halt.

Anonymous Coward says:

10% error rate (and 26% more questionable)? I think that establishes reasonable doubt right there, and the program should be forcibly scrapped by the courts.

Also, since the company lied about the Baltimore numbers to get the Chicago contract, Chicago should cancel that contract as fraudulently obtained. And, you know, prosecute the company for fraud, but I won’t hold my breath on any of this.

Anonymous Coward says:

the state of texas has a clever gig going.? work zones actually have two zones around them.? the one you encounter entering the zone with a reduced speed limit sign has a little sub-sign nowadays that says ‘work zone’.? at the end of the actual region of work, there is a sign that says, ‘end of roadwork’.? locals know to ignore that second sign but outsiders don’t.? outsiders think ‘end of roadwork’ ends the work zone, but it doesn’t.? maybe a mile further on – and often past a hilltop or other view break – there is a sign that says ‘end of work zone’.? now you can speed up.

i realized the gig driving out west on ih-20 one day.? the gig was working the eastbound lanes and i was headed west.? nearing a hilltop i saw maybe eight cop cars in a line just off the roadway, just sitting there at the ready.? i had noticed a couple of stopped cars the past mile or so and realized that line of cops, like surfers taking turns on good enough waves, was doing the stopping.

i noticed for the first time the dual sign scam as i exited that work area, and the next work zone i realized that they all had that slick arrangement.? the cars being pulled over had passed a sign indicating the roadwork was complete, and i’m sure they thought it meant the restriction was done, too.? but the speed restriction wasn’t ended until the sign past the hilltop.

someone must have gotten after the state over that, because i’m now seeing the little sub-signs that say ‘work zone’.? i’m guessing they had to do that to underscore your wrongdoing since they plainly say ‘work zone’ at the reduced speed limit sign.? has to be those words to count.

everything is bigger in texas.? even the passive-aggression.

Anonymous Coward says:

Traffic cams are a public safety hazard. The yellow light time where these cameras are installed, is reduced to only 2 seconds, in an effort to “maximize profits” over safety.

They cause motorists to drive more “on edge”, worried about running yellow lights. So instead they slam on their brakes if the light turns yellow, causing increased rear-end accidents.

Thus, causing increased insurance rates, hospital patients, and an enraged population. There’s nothing “good” about traffic cameras. They’re all around “bad” for the vast majority of the human population.

Michael (profile) says:

Re: Re:

While I think red light cameras, overall, are not worthwhile, I am always concerned that statements like this harm the overall argument against them because people can point at you and say “look, people against red light cameras are just spouting nonsense”.

The yellow light time where these cameras are installed, is reduced to only 2 seconds

The yellow light times HAVE been reduced in some places – likely in an attempt to increase profits, but in the vast majority of implementations, this has not happened.

They cause motorists to drive more “on edge”, worried about running yellow lights

I am not sure I have seen any studies that have established this. I think the closest I have seen is the cameras can do this to some people.

While I think there are probably some negative consequences to red light cameras, if you really want to help the argument against them, it is best to stick to the simple argument that there is little to no evidence that they help public safety.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

I am not sure I have seen any studies that have established this. I think the closest I have seen is the cameras can do this to some people

I would argue that the evidence is the documented increase in rear-end collisions in intersections that use red light cameras.

Anecdotally, it’s really easy to see this in action. Watch at any such intersection and you’ll see many people hard-braking at yellow lights. You don’t see the same thing at intersections without red light cameras.

Personally and subjectively, intersections with red light cameras just feel more dangerous to me, because people going through them behave more erratically. I try to avoid such intersections wherever possible for just this reason.

Androgynous Cowherd says:

It's Worse

The city issued roughly 700,000 speed camera tickets at $40 each in fiscal year 2012. If 10 percent were wrong, 70,000 would have wrongly been charged $2.8 million.

It’s actually potentially much, much worse than that.

Let’s suppose you have a population of 1000 drivers, of whom 1%, so 10 of them, speed. The camera is wrong 10% of the time, so of the 10 speeders one doesn’t get ticketed and of the 990 non-speeders 99 *do*.

That’s 108 tickets issued, of which only nine are legitimate.

That’s 11 out of every 12 tickets, not just one out of every ten, wrongly issued. If the real percent of speeders is close to 1%, the real number of wrong tickets may well be a lot more than 70,000. It could be as many as 640,000.

The higher the percentage of cars actually speeding at the camera sites, the lower this is, but it would have to approach 50% speeders for the number of wrongly-issued tickets to be as *low* as 70,000; or else the camera would have to be biased to falsely clear speeders more frequently than it falsely tickets non-speeders.

Unfortunately, the actual, separate false-positive and false-negative rates aren’t mentioned in this article. Someone who knows them could plug them into Bayes’s theorem to figure out the actual percentage of tickets that were wrongly issued. The math would be:

p(non-speeder|ticketed) = p(ticketed|non-speeder)p(non-speeder)/p(ticketed)

with p(ticketed|non-speeder) being the false-positive rate, p(non-speeder) being the proportion of cars passing cameras that are truly within the speed limit (calibrate using a more reliable data source, perhaps a trustworthy cop with a radar gun if you can find one), and p(ticketed) being tickets issued (700,000) divided by total traffic volume past the cameras during the relevant time period. All the p() numbers should be between 0 and 1 (multiply the output by 100 to get a percentage).

(More information on this math is at

Niall (profile) says:

Re: It's Worse

This would work if the cameras took pictures of every car, but in practice, if any car going too slow probably (95%?) doesn’t trigger the camera, then you’d only have, say, 5% of your 990, meaning that 99 out of 2000 drivers would be wrongly ticketed, compared to 20 speeders, of whom 2 are incorrectly done.

Of course, if the camera has an even lower error rate for below it’s set limit, then the discrepancy is less bad. But there really would be two error rates here.

Victor A (user link) says:

Traffic cams

I live at just a notch the poverty line and am disabled. I just got one of these tickets. I remember passing on yellow, not red. If it is not safe to stop, you go – only to get a ticket for 75 dollars which makes a difference as to whether I can by food or not! Shame on this and other cities rigging these cameras to give more tickets each day! Double shame that you are threatened with an even bigger file if you lose in court with their "camera" evidence which they claim is infallible in court. They threaten to take your driver license if you don’t pay up! It’s extortion under the guise of law and public safety! We need to start a petition to have these things removed. They are killing people financially. I am so worried about this now. 75 dollars gone means very little for food and bare necessities. It is disgusting how they rob the public even more!!!! Out of control, big brother-like police state encrouching on liberty more and more each day!!!

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