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City speed camera 'nightmare' among the year's lows, AAA says

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AAA Mid-Atlantic says Baltimore's speed camera "nightmare" was one of the transportation lows of 2012, though the driver advocacy group credited a similar program run by the State Highway Administration with helping to improve safety in construction zones.

"The troubles with Baltimore's speed camera system have raised the eyebrows of motorists, legislators and traffic safety advocates and have truly called the integrity of the City's entire program into question," AAA spokeswoman Ragina Averella said in a news release Thursday.

The city has stopped issuing tickets at 10 of its 83 cameras, because of either erroneous radar readings or questions about the appropriateness of their locations.

At the same time, AAA said a highlight of 2012 was a continuing decline in crashes, injuries and deaths in Maryland highway work zones, which have had speed cameras for three years. The state reports a big drop in speeding violations and is on track to issue fewer automated tickets than in 2011.

Asked about AAA's critique, city Department of Transportation spokeswoman Adrienne Barnes said the city takes camera accuracy seriously and will refund 350 tickets that a recent review found were wrong. She pointed out that AAA has a seat on a task force formed by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to review the city's red light and speed camera programs. Averella is on the task force.

"The truth is that hundreds of thousands of motorists are speeding in school zones throughout the city, it's dangerous, and the camera program has [been] shown to reduce speeding," Barnes said.

Baltimore's lucrative network of radar-equipped cameras was the subject of a Baltimore Sun investigation that found some tickets are incorrect and that District Court judges routinely throw out the $40 citations for a variety of deficiencies.

Several state lawmakers plan to introduce reform legislation in the coming General Assembly session. AAA predicted legislators would be busy addressing "the failures and lack of accountability for a program that was supposedly intended as a traffic safety tool, which is now perceived as nothing more than a money grab by many motorists."

The Sun has documented that seven of the city's speed cameras have clocked vehicles going faster than they were actually traveling, even ticketing one car while it was stopped at a red light.

Officials with the city's speed camera contractor, Xerox State and Local Solutions, recently told the task force that five cameras had been idled after a review found that 5 percent of the tickets they issued had radar-related errors that Xerox staff didn't catch before the citations were issued.

Those five cameras have generated at least 15,000 tickets, city records show, translating to $600,000 in potential fines for motorists. City transportation officials say a fraction of the total, 350 tickets, will be refunded based on the company's internal audit.

The city previously acknowledged issuing nearly 6,000 citations that were later deemed erroneous because cameras were programmed with the incorrect speed limit or location address, or because the equipment malfunctioned, resulting in several hundred thousand dollars in refunds and forgiven fines.

In August, the city shut down five other speed cameras after AAA questioned whether their placement near colleges, hospitals and preschools met state guidelines specifying that they be located only near schools serving kindergarten through 12th grade.

Xerox and the city maintain that the vast majority of citations are accurate. Xerox, which is also the state's contractor, says it has bolstered internal reviews to keep the city from mailing out bad citations. Under state law, tickets can be issued to vehicles recorded going at least 12 mph over the speed limit.

Next month the city will switch contractors, with Brekford Corp. taking the place of Xerox. Since the speed camera program began in late 2009, the city has issued more than 1.6 million tickets and collected more than $48 million in fines from motorists.

Joining the city's speed camera problems on AAA's list of 2012 transportation lows were an increase in highway deaths nationwide, high gas prices and a greater reliance on tolls to pay for road work.

Along with improved highway work zone safety, AAA said the year's highlights include a road construction boom in the region and a change in state law requiring children younger than 8 to ride in booster seats until they reach a height of 4 feet 9 inches, regardless of their weight.

scalvert@baltsun.com

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