Like most major cities, Baltimore has installed a net of speed cameras across its streets to reduce traffic accidents and provide a new source of cash. Last year, those cameras provided 904,000 tickets generating some $36 million — and several complaints that the cameras were inaccurate, including one from a man who got a ticket for speeding in his Mazda 5 even though it was clearly stopped. After a city probe, the camera operator found that it had issued tickets wrongly in 5 percent of cases, a statistic that's only raised more questions about how off other systems might be.
The review was handled by Xerox, which bought the company that installed the 83 speed cameras in Baltimore. When those cameras capture a speeder in the act, the company has its technicians review the evidence before forwarding to Baltimore police, who issue the actual ticket. That $40 ticket carries the same legal weight as one given by an officer standing by your car; it's a sworn statement that law enforcement saw you commit the act.
Except in Daniel Doty's case. As the Baltimore Sun reported, Doty received a ticket for going 38 mph in a 20-mph zone even though the video captured by the camera shows his car stopped at an intersection, with its brake lights on. After his complaint and several others spurred a review by Baltimore officials, Xerox did its own investigation and told the city on Dec. 11 that at five of the 83 cameras, an "unusually high rate of occurrence of radar effects" had caused the cameras to tag speeders when they shouldn't have been. Because the processors didn't catch the errors, Xerox estimated 5.2 percent of the several thousand tickets launched by those five cameras were wrong; outside of those cameras, Xerox says its systems were incorrect just 0.05 percent of the time.
The company says it updated its training to handle errors from two of the five sites, but in three other sites it hasn't been able to turn the cameras back on. Because the cameras use radar to sense speeders, they can be thrown off by large trucks and other surfaces that scramble waves, and Baltimore officials say they will need to void hundreds of tickets from those five sites.
Such stories only power opposition in the 13 states that use speed cameras over the past few years. In Ohio, a computer failure forced the dismissal of hundreds of tickets; in southern Maryland, a city has been sued for allegedly issuing tickets without a review and letting a speed camera system issue hundreds of inaccurate tickets. Camera equipment companies say their devices are calibrated daily, but as the Baltimore cases show, just because a camera says you're speeding doesn't mean it's being candid.